Strategies & Considerations
The Natural Farmer, Spring 2022
by Kathy Ruhf, Senior Advisor and Jim Habana Hafner, Executive Director, Land For Good
Many farmers are exploring ways to farm together. The idea of being and sharing with other farmers is not only appealing, but innately human. The impulse to cooperate is as old as agriculture itself, when sustaining one’s self and family was a group effort, and individual sustenance was only possible in community. Today this is sometimes referred to as “collaborative farming,” “cooperative farming,” or “collective farming.” When farming as a group, farmers may share resources, assets, knowledge and skills. A group of farmers could share equipment, inputs, marketing and/or labor.
Farmers could also share land. This article written for The Natural Farmer focuses on how farmers access land as a group. The focus is on farmers with commercial aims, although the motivations for, and benefits of “group farmland access” extend beyond economic considerations. It is worth noting that an increasing number of private and public landowners are interested in providing group farming opportunities on their land.
Like many visions about farming, “group farmland access” can mean different things. In this article, group farmland access means two or more farmers using a specific property for farming. A group might also consist of farmers and non-farmers on land together. Group farmland access implies some amount of purposeful interaction among the farmers in the group, on a piece of land. So farmers who rent land from the same landlord but do not interact with each other in meaningful ways would not be considered “group farming.” They would just be independent tenants.
Purposeful interaction among farmers on the same piece of land has both advantages and challenges. Group farmland access requires legal arrangements for holding the land along with structures and processes for group “governance.” The legal and social arrangements for holding land and making decisions as a group vary. Each has pros and cons.
A new decision tool Accessing Farmland Together developed by Land For Good for the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network-Northeast helps farmers examine group farmland access methods. The group farmland access decision tool invites farmers to consider these key questions:
- Who is in the group?
- What are the legal structures and agreements?
- What documents are required?
- How are social relationships managed?
The focus is on how group approaches to land access could meet the vision and situation of a farmer, a group of farmers, a landowner, or other stakeholders. A method that works for one farmer or group or situation might not be appropriate for another.
Group land access can address one of the biggest challenges for farmers—especially new and young farmers, and those from groups that are and were historically marginalized due to their race, class, ethnicity, gender—getting onto land. Farmland is expensive to buy. Appropriate land for agriculture is hard to find, especially when housing is factored in. Renting land can be expensive relative to farm profit margins and rented land can be insecure, so it is risky for farmers to make permanent or long-term investments in the operation or the land itself. Plus, farming can be isolating. Pooling resources can make land access more affordable. Sharing land can reduce risk. That said, some group methods bring their own sets of risks.
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