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Cooperative farming & accessing farmland together

Access to land remains a top challenge for all farmers. Group farmland access can solve some land access obstacles and offer multiple benefits. Many farmers are exploring ways to farm collectively. This can allow farmers to share resources, assets, knowledge, skills, equipment, labor—and the expense of land.

Group of farmers farming on land together at Urban Edge Farm (RI)

Farmers face common challenges. By working together, in solidarity, there’s a spirit of cooperation, sharing resources, and connecting around a common vision that can improve farmers’ chances of success, as well as their quality of life, social connections and mental health. We are hearing from many new and young farmers especially —including those from groups that are and were historically marginalized due to their race, class, ethnicity, gender—that they find it appealing to be and share with other farmers. 

Economic and social shifts due to the coronavirus pandemic have also increased the prices and competition for farm properties in rural New England, adding to the challenges of gaining access to farmland. Prime farmland in New England is expensive to purchase and hard to find, especially when factoring in housing. Renting land can also be expensive relative to farm profit margins and depending on the arrangement  can be unstable. It is risky for farmers to make permanent or long-term investments in the operation or the land itself when operating with insecure tenure, such as through a short-term lease or unwritten agreement. For these reasons and more,  cooperative farming is particularly interesting in the current market – and moment. 

A new educational tool, Accessing Farmland Together, describes different ways to access farmland as a group. There is no one model for cooperative farming, and each has its pros and cons. The right method for each farmer depends on a lot of factors. A method that works for one group might not be appropriate for another. It is important to know the various options to make informed decisions. 

There are many ways to think about group farmland access, more than are included in this tool. A farmer might imagine building their own model. This tool will help farmers understand what’s important and what might work for them. This tool guides farmers with worksheets, real-world examples, and an interactive decision tree. It points to the importance of shared vision, clear structures and appropriate written documents. 

The tool also addresses the challenges of group farmland access. Groups of people can be challenging to manage, even for those who are committed and get along. They may have a lot of history together, or are creating new relationships. Group farmland access involves a lot more than just getting along or sharing resources. It involves money, risk, control, decision-making, and accountability. This tool will help farmers to be as clear as possible about why they want to farm this way, and what it might mean. 

This tool will help farmers make good decisions about group farmland access. 

Accessing Farmland Together: A Decision Tool for Farmers

 

Some real-world examples highlighted in the tool:

Four Root Farm. Four individuals own the farm business as an LLC. The same four individuals formed a second LLC which purchased the land. The business LLC rents from the land LLC. The four farmers each have a 25% stake in each entity. Their agreements articulate a fair division of the financial and physical upkeep of the land and two houses on the property. In their agreements, a farmer could exit from the farm and still live on the land, or continue to be part of the business but sell their interest in the real estate.

Global Greens (GG) is an agriculture program of Lutheran Services in Iowa that serves former refugees. A group of farmers who trained together in GG’s program will move on to lease land owned by another nonprofit. The farmers in this cohort each have their own businesses (currently DBAs intending to mature into entities such as LLCs) that will be the tenants. Their shared experience as program trainees and former refugees motivates them to take this next step together to overcome individual barriers to land access. Eventually, some of them may move onto other land. 

Somali-Bantu Community Association/Agrarian Commons. SBCA is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization offering a variety of programs and services to the Somali Bantu community in Maine. SBCA raised funds for the purchase of a 104-acre farm for SBCA’s Liberation Farms program which serves over 200 families. The land is owned by Little Jubba Central Maine Agrarian Commons, a local community land trust under that national nonprofit organization, Agrarian Trust. SBCA is the master tenant with a long-term lease. At this point, the Liberation Farm growers are program participants, some of whom grow for market in a subgroup and have signed “participation agreements.”    

Urban Edge Farm/SSCLT. Southside Community Land Trust (SSCLT) in Rhode Island has a long-term lease with the state’s Department of Environmental Management for 50 acres of land. SSCLT subleases to 8 separate farm businesses. These businesses also share infrastructure and a “sense of collective responsibility.” Several years ago, the farmers explored creating a cooperative but decided not to.

New Entry Sustainable Farming Project. NESFP is a nonprofit organization with multiple farmer and food access programs. It leases land in Massachusetts from a conservation organization. In turn, NESFP’s Incubator Farm Program offers a “program agreement” (a contract) to small, independent commercial farm businesses for plots of land and shared infrastructure. These “program agreements” are not technically leases because the landowner does not allow subleasing. Nonetheless, requirements are spelled out in an accompanying manual. 

SEAMarron Farmstead. A married farming couple purchased 3 acres of land to grow produce and raise bees in Connecticut. The business is under separate ownership, with family and friends helping out on the farm. The landowning farmers offer small plots to others to grow food through informal arrangements which they plan to formalize with leases. Some tenants may pay rent in the form of labor on the landowners’ farm.

 

This tool is a product of the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network-Northeast (FRSAN-NE), a network of organizations supported with funding from the 2018 Farm Bill. FRSAN-NE cohorts are working to improve behavioral health awareness and access for farmers and farmworkers in the region. The FRSAN-NE Land Access Cohort sought to mitigate the stresses farmers face in accessing land. In addition to this educational tool, the Cohort produced several videos related to land access.

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