For the next generation of farmers, developing the land trust structure is critical

With 400 million acres of land in the United States expected to change hands over the next two decades, now is the time for land ownership transformation, says Ian McSweeney. Ian is the director of Agricultural confidencewhich supports small farmers and their communities through the establishment of Agricultural House of Commons, a model of communal land tenure with a focus on sustainable agriculture. Here he and Ashoka’s Lisbet Portman discuss the urgent need for an alternative to industrial farming, the limits of conservation and what a long-term vision of environmental stewardship might look like.

Lisbet Portman: How did you feel about the country around you as a young person?

Ian McSweeney: I was lucky enough to grow up on a small farm surrounded by several thousand acres of mostly untouched land. When I was very young, an industrial dairy farm bought up most of that pristine land and went about dredging wetlands, damming waterways and completely destroying the natural ecosystem. As I grew older, the context of the damage became clear. The city tried to stop them. Then the state tried to stop them. In the end, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the countries and amended the Clean Water Act to add protections. So seeing that country that I was associated with as a young child was torn down but eventually protected by legal action had a huge impact on me.

Portman: So you caught a glimpse early on of agriculture as a destructive force. Did you also see agriculture as a force for good?

McSweeney: I grew up eating food from my parents’ backyard; their social circles all used small-scale food production to restore land ecosystems. Later I came into contact with one of the first community-supported agricultural farms. This is how I saw regenerative agriculture in practice.

Portman: How would you describe regenerative farming to a three-year-old?

McSweeney: Regenerative agriculture means giving more to the earth than you take. And when you try to grow food to eat, you take a lot of nutrients from the soil. So you have to work even harder to replenish those nutrients.

Portman: What are some of the overarching concepts of the human relationship with land that have shaped policy in the US?

McSweeney: Traditional land conservation is based on the belief that protecting nature means keeping people out of it. I’ve always found that shortsighted, because my exposure to nature as a child was so hands-on. Then I started to learn more about the movement of people that goes into creating these spaces. The elitism behind it, the fact that they are primarily for some and not most, really stood out. Colonial capitalism takes a similar approach worldwide: it separates people and land in the service of a desired outcome for the few.

Portman: Can you talk to us about the Agrarian Commons model? How does it differ from traditional land conservation practices in this country?

McSweeney: Conservation land trusts have a long history of success in maintaining a culture of respect for the land and volunteering time, energy and money. So for us at the Agrarian Trust, it’s about preserving and expanding that culture as we move in the new direction of localized autonomy: less segregation and regulation, more perspectives. Farms that put people at the center who are marginalized due to access to land, nutritious food and good health are also a priority in our approach.

Portman: The Agrarian Trust currently has 415 acres under regenerative stewardship and together has created 14 Agrarian Commons in Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Montana and more (see map here). How are they organized?

McSweeney: Each of the commons is different. Some are more production-oriented, while others are used for environmental education and training. But the most important characteristic of a successful Agrarian Common is that it is locally run – the local leaders and farmers and their families benefit. They provide land security, tenure and justice for their own communities. They have a deep understanding of the geographical area.

In addition, because they know the existing landowners, they are able to help these landowners relocate. Sometimes that means donating a farm, and sometimes that means fundraising to meet the seller’s terms. Either way, it takes cooperation between the landowner and the Commons. Using the land trust structure to make agreements, raise money, acquire land and transfer it to the structure.

Portman: Why is this approach so important now? What are some of the drivers?

McSweeney: The median age of farmland owners in the US is over 64, so most want to sell. But the price of land has been rising for decades, while farm income has steadily fallen. It is simply unaffordable for small farmers to buy that land. So that is a very big crisis point. According to USDA, 37 medium-sized farms are closing per day. This exacerbates the fact that we are not providing people with enough nutritious food. We need a new, non-extractive way of farming. And it’s not even a new way. Much of the world practices small-scale regenerative agriculture, but that’s not the story we’re hearing. We hear that we can’t feed the world, so we have to bioengineer products and increase industrial agriculture.

Portman: What is your sense of the country’s readiness for this idea?

McSweeney: The pandemic and climate collapse we face are terrifying events and yet they raise awareness. Now the collapse of the climate is a normal part of the news cycle. Ten years ago, those words couldn’t even be said on the news without skepticism.

At the same time, any solutions we envision – whether they involve climate collapse or feeding a wider population – require some long-term investment and land security. Currently, a lot of capital is flowing into regenerative farming practices, but it is happening in a very unsafe way. We know that this whole country is in transition. We know that some of these regenerative practices take at least ten years to produce results, but we have no guarantee that these practices can continue. It is risky to dump so much money into the country with so much uncertainty.

Portman: You are right, this requires patience – we will have to cultivate a new mindset and long-term policies. In that regard, can you comment on the 99-year lease and its impact on this Commons?

McSweeney: The 99-year lease, the longest a lease can be, is a construct of state and federal law. It establishes a timetable for land tenure intended to provide long-term, multi-generational security for land and all the rights necessary to practice agriculture without permanent land tenure. But land is permanent and we need a long-term vision. So much wiser than we would say, we must have a seven generation vision for land. We may be temporary, but our work need not be.

Ian McSweeney is an Ashoka Fellow. You can read more about the approach and impact of Ian and his team here.