Land Trusts Are a Step Toward a Step Toward a Sustainable Future for Agriculture

John Ikerd

The Sus­tain­able Iowa Land Trust or SILT was launched 2015 to help save and pro­tect the best of the fam­i­ly farm – small, diverse, clean farms that feed Iowans.” The SILT web­site pro­claims, We are ded­i­cat­ed to per­ma­nent­ly pro­tect­ing land to grow healthy food for gen­er­a­tions to come.” Farm­land trusts, like SILT, are a means of mak­ing more farm­land avail­able for sus­tain­able pro­duc­tion of healthy foods.

Sus­tain­able agri­cul­tur­al ease­ments admin­is­tered by SILT remove spec­u­la­tive pres­sures that keep costs of farm­land too high to be paid for by sus­tain­able farm­ing. Farm­land owned by SILT is made avail­able to farm­ers through long term leas­es that allow farm­ers to ben­e­fit from appre­ci­a­tion in the farm busi­ness with­out the eco­nom­ic chal­lenges of land pur­chase and own­er­ship. SILT also works through pri­vate and pub­lic part­ner­ships to facil­i­tate land own­er­ship trans­fers and land use plan­ning to per­ma­nent­ly pro­tect land to grow healthy food for future generations.”

In its short three-year’s lifes­pan, SILT has pro­tect­ed 5 farms with more than 400 total acres. This is an impres­sive start, but a start on what might seem an impos­si­ble mis­sion. With the aver­age age of U.S. farm­ers over 58-years old, some­thing like 92 mil­lion acres or 10% of U.S. farm­land has changed hands in the past five years. In the next 20 years, approx­i­mate­ly 70% of U.S. farm­land is like­ly to change hands. It’s cer­tain­ly going to be an uphill bat­tle to make U.S. farm­land acces­si­ble and afford­able to farm­ers who are com­mit­ted to the sus­tain­able, regen­er­a­tive farm­ing sys­tems need­ed pro­tect the land and grow healthy food for gen­er­a­tions to come.

Access to farm­land is con­sis­tent­ly ranks among the biggest obsta­cles faced by the new gen­er­a­tion of farm­ers com­mit­ted to the tra­di­tion­al val­ues of fam­i­ly farm­ers as stew­ards of their lands and respon­si­ble mem­bers of their com­mu­ni­ties. These new farm­ers face land prices inflat­ed by com­pe­ti­tion from large-scale com­mod­i­ty pro­duc­ers who are heav­i­ly sub­si­dized by gov­ern­ment pro­grams. In addi­tion, farm­land prices are being inflat­ed by spec­u­la­tive investors who see even high-priced farm­land as a low-risk alter­na­tive to finan­cial instru­ments. More than 30% of U.S. farm­land is cur­rent­ly owned by non-oper­a­tor or non-farm­ing land­lords — includ­ing indi­vid­ual own­ers as well as cor­po­ra­tions and invest­ment funds.

A grow­ing cadre of pro­fes­sion­al farm man­agers are mak­ing the farm man­age­ment deci­sions on these non-oper­a­tor or non-farmer owned farms. These pro­fes­sion­al farm man­agers are not man­ag­ing farms for the triple eco­log­i­cal, social, and eco­nom­ic bot­tom line of sus­tain­able fam­i­ly farms. They are man­ag­ing for the sin­gle eco­nom­ic bot­tom line of indus­tri­al agri-busi­ness. Increas­ing­ly, large, com­mer­cial farm­ing oper­a­tions are using pre­ci­sion farm­ing” sys­tems that uti­lize exten­sive dig­i­tized data gath­ered from soil tests and yield mon­i­tors to con­trol GPS guid­ed crop seed­ing, fer­til­iza­tion and pes­ti­cide appli­ca­tion and rely on real-time mon­i­tor­ing of crop con­di­tions via satel­lite. The large and grow­ing data bases col­lect­ed for pre­ci­sion farm­ing have allowed high-tech cli­mate-smart agri­cul­ture” to make inroads into the glob­al sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture movement.

Big Data” is the new chal­lenge to sus­tain­able food sys­tems of the future. Some futur­ists envi­sion a food sys­tem that is essen­tial­ly con­trolled at every lev­el, from dirt to the din­ner plate, by deci­sions made by com­put­ers and car­ried out by robots. Even more trou­bling is the fact that a few multi­na­tion­al agribusi­ness cor­po­ra­tions, notably Bay­er and Mon­san­to, own and con­trol a large share of the big data” asso­ci­at­ed with agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion. With a future in which hun­dreds of mil­lions of acres of farm­land could be owned through multi­na­tion­al spec­u­la­tive invest­ment funds and oper­at­ed by com­put­ers and robots con­trolled by multi­na­tion­al agribusi­ness cor­po­ra­tions, per­ma­nent­ly pro­tect­ing farm­land to grow healthy food for future gen­er­a­tions” seems a daunt­ing, if not impos­si­ble, mis­sion. That being said, it is a mis­sion that we sim­ply must complete.

The achieve­ments of SILT might seem insignif­i­cant com­pared to the chal­lenge, but they are not. There are dozens if not hun­dreds of oth­er land trusts and oth­er non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tions all across the coun­try who share the mis­sion of mak­ing farm­land acces­si­ble to sus­tain­able farm­ers. Each orga­ni­za­tion is unique in its approach and its vision for the future, but they share a com­mon mis­sion. There is inher­ent strength in their diver­si­ty. There are hun­dreds of thou­sands of farm­ers reach­ing retire­ment age who still have the com­mit­ment to stew­ard­ship and com­mu­ni­ty of tra­di­tion­al fam­i­ly farm­ers. These farm­ers want to leave a lega­cy of farm­ing that reflects those val­ues, but they sim­ply have not yet found a means of doing so that works for them. There are thou­sands of oth­ers, like the folks who sup­port orga­ni­za­tions like SILT, who are pas­sion­ate­ly com­mit­ted to mak­ing it pos­si­ble for these farm­ers to per­ma­nent­ly pro­tect” their farms so new gen­er­a­tions of like-mind­ed farm­ers can grow healthy food for future generations.”

Iron­i­cal­ly, Iowa’s right-to-farm leg­is­la­tion might prove use­ful in mak­ing farm­land acces­si­ble for sus­tain­able farm­ers. It states: It is the intent of the gen­er­al assem­bly to pro­vide local cit­i­zens and local gov­ern­ments the means by which agri­cul­tur­al land may be pro­tect­ed from nona­gri­cul­tur­al devel­op­ment pres­sures. This may be accom­plished by the cre­ation of coun­ty land preser­va­tion and use plans and poli­cies, adop­tion of an agri­cul­tur­al land preser­va­tion ordi­nance, or estab­lish­ment of agri­cul­tur­al areas in which sub­stan­tial agri­cul­tur­al activ­i­ties are encouraged.”

The appar­ent intent of the law is to sep­a­rate rur­al res­i­dences from farm­ing oper­a­tions. How­ev­er, local gov­ern­ment offi­cials could instead use agri­cul­tur­al zon­ing laws to estab­lish large safe zones” around Iowa’s cities, town, and rur­al com­mu­ni­ties where farm­ers and oth­er rur­al res­i­dences could coex­ist in mutu­al­ly-ben­e­fi­cial, sup­port­ive rela­tion­ships with the farm­lands per­ma­nent­ly pro­tect­ed to grow healthy food” for their local com­mu­ni­ties for gen­er­a­tions to come.” The farms could be good places for neigh­bors to live around as well as good places farm fam­i­lies to live on.

SILT and oth­er farm­land preser­va­tion ini­tia­tives may well be cre­at­ing the grass­roots sup­port for sub­stan­tive changes in land use plan­ning. Small begin­nings can lead to big changes, like the small trim tabs” that change the direc­tion of large ships on the ocean. The trim tab is a small rud­der in the larg­er rud­der of large ships. The trim tab changes first, which allows the rud­der to change, which then changes the direc­tion of the ship. Image that today’s indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture is like a fleet of large ships head­ed toward the tur­bu­lent seas of an unsus­tain­able future. How­ev­er, the trim tabs, like SILT, are already chang­ing, cre­at­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for local farm­land preser­va­tion ordi­nances, which even­tu­al­ly will turn the agri-food sys­tem toward a resilient, regen­er­a­tive, sus­tain­able future.

Even if you doubt that such big changes are pos­si­ble, your sup­port for SILT might help cre­ate oppor­tu­ni­ties for dozens of thought­ful retir­ing fam­i­ly farm­ers to pass on their lega­cy of stew­ard­ship and com­mu­ni­ty on to a new gen­er­a­tion of farm­ers who are com­mit­ted to grow­ing healthy food for cur­rent and future gen­er­a­tions. Final­ly, even if the odds of suc­cess seem small, there are some things in life that we must sup­port sim­ply because it’s the right things to do.

Land for Sus­tain­able Farm­ing” was orig­i­nal­ly post­ed on John Ikerd​.com and was respost­ed with permission. 

John Ikerd was raised on a small dairy farm in south­west Mis­souri. He received his BS, MS, and Ph.D. degrees in agri­cul­tur­al eco­nom­ics from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri. After work­ing in pri­vate indus­try, he spent 30 years in var­i­ous pro­fes­so­r­i­al posi­tions at North Car­oli­na State Uni­ver­si­ty, Okla­homa State Uni­ver­si­ty, Uni­ver­si­ty of Geor­gia and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri before retir­ing in ear­ly 2000. He now spends most of his time writ­ing and speak­ing on issues relat­ed to sus­tain­abil­i­ty with an empha­sis on eco­nom­ics and agri­cul­ture. He cur­rent­ly resides in Fair­field, Iowa and is the author of sev­er­al books includ­ing Essen­tials of Eco­nom­ic Sus­tain­abil­i­ty, Sus­tain­able Cap­i­tal­ism, A Return to Com­mon Sense and Cri­sis and Oppor­tu­ni­ty: Sus­tain­abil­i­ty in Amer­i­can Agri­cul­ture and A Rev­o­lu­tion of the Mid­dle.
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