The intractable issue of access to land for new farmers

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by Alicia Miller – SFT Editor on 17 May, 2019 in Farming

Photograph: Ecological Land Coop

One of the really critically pressing issues in sustainable farming today, is access to land for new farmers, especially in the developed world where agricultural land is among the most expensive to be had. The narrative around this issue is well established: farmers are ageing, and not just in the developed world – the average age of African farmers is 60. Young people, despite the explosion of interest in farming over the last decade or more, are still not going into farming in large numbers. Those that do, struggle to find land that is affordable – the average price of agricultural land in Britain is around £8,000 – £10,000 an acre.

All this is coalescing into an intractable problem that we must find a way to fix. We need the next generation of farmers if we want to feed the growing global population sustainable, healthy food in a century that is to be marked by significant and possibly devastating climate change. The premise of sustainable farming, arguably, sits on the necessity of small- and mid-scale farmers working the land in traditional mixed rotations and being close enough to their soil to get to know it. To really turn around the industrialised food system, growing the ranks of new farmers who enter the profession with a care and interest in sustainable practices is essential; but getting them land to farm – in the long- term – may be the hardest thing to do.

The economics of farming are stacked against sustainable farmers, and finding land that a farmer can rent, lease or, hope-of-hopes, actually be able to buy is difficult, particularly in the US and Europe. In an interview, Sridharan (Sri) Sethuratnam of the Center for Land-based Learning in California, which has a significant programme of farmer training, said, “It’s not that the land isn’t there, but there are these societal structures [such as land consolidation] that prevents people outside of farming from getting into it. I spend sleepless nights thinking ‘but if we are training all these farmers and they don’t get the land, what is the point of this training?” It’s a vital and important point to consider – farmers need something to farm.

In the UK, there are varied of programmes to train new farmers including the Soil Association’s Future Growers traineeships and Ruskin Mill’s biodynamic training. ‘Incubator’ programmes like FarmStart, where farmers are allocated a plot of land for a period of time – one year, two year, five years – in order to develop their skills and test out business plans, ready to make a real start, are an increasing extension of training. Stream Farm has taken the ‘incubator’ model on as its business plan – they offer placements to new farmers, inviting them take on one of the farm’s businesses and the livelihood that goes with it. It’s a great way for new farmers to learn in a hands-on way how to run a land-based business, but the farmers that pass through Stream Farm still have to secure their own land, when they leave.

There are many established UK farmers who recognise the need to support new farmers. Matt Dunwell of Ragman’s Lane Farm has made the farm a “platform” for other people seeking to access land, working within the farm structure, but running their own independent enterprises. Being integrated within the farm offers an infrastructure of support and knowledge, as well as practical benefits such as tying in with the farm’s marketing network. The relationships are open-ended, some have stayed for years, others for shorter periods of time.

These kind of relationships between established farmers and new farmers can be immensely fruitful, but their parameters must be clearly drawn and fair to both parties. Fresh Start’s land partnership programme seeks to bring ‘land entrepreneurs’ together with land owners, finding ways to connect ideas and resources. At the base of these partnerships, is a legal document, hammered out between the partners that delineates what the business structure will be and how the relationship will work. At its best, such partnerships can be long and enduring, but they are also individual and unique to the people involved.

While people are thinking outside the box for ways to bring more new farmers into farming, what hasn’t been negotiated is long-term security on a piece of land, something that only ownership can bring. Farmers get attached to land – it’s a long and enduring relationship that they become ever more deeply enmeshed in. Losing land, either by sale or because of the end of a lease or change of circumstances, can be devastating, and it’s also, perhaps, why succession can sometimes be such a tricky issue. When my partner and I started to try and find land to farm, we thought maybe we could work with an older farmer, share-farming, but eventually purchasing at least part of their land, so that we had some long-term security. The conversation always stopped there – while they wanted someone to take on the farm and continue to farm it, they still planned to pass the farm onto their children, who would, inevitably, sell it. We realised that ten, 15, 20 years in, we would lose the land.

Caitlin Hachmyer has written cogently about the relationship that a farmer has with the land she or he owns versus the land that is rented or leased. She writes, in her essay Notes from a new farmer: Rent-culture, insecurity and the need for change for the book Land Justice, “While you can love the land you rent, there is something deeper—at least for me—about knowing that I am tending a piece of land that I am permanently connected to. I have found that I have never really sunk into a piece of rented land the way I do at my home farm…Even long-term leases, providing some degree of security to farmers, harbor extreme risk…I work to build something that could slip through my fingers at any moment. An investment whose return I might never know.”

Facilitating long-term secure access to agricultural land, for farmers who don’t come from farming, nor have the money to simply purchase land, is something that needs to be solved. Sadly, there was a resource for this in the network of council farms which had been a vital means of giving new farmers an extended secure tenure on a farm, but with their sell-off as a new means of bringing income to cash-strapped councils that are struggling in the face of austerity, this significant asset is being lost.

However, there are some interesting new models that could offer a way forward for some UK farmers.

Using a community share model, the Ecological Land Coop (ELC) has recently purchased several sites to develop small farms and smallholdings for people who want to create land-based businesses on them. The sites, in Arlington, Sussex and Sparkford, South Somerset, will provide both land and the opportunity of building a house, albeit to strict environmental specifications. The ELC provides basic infrastructure. There is both permanence (they offer 150-year leases) and flexibility – sites can be sold should owners want to move on, though the price is fixed to remain affordable, because the ELC retains the freehold.

Wales has also developed a unique planning initiative, called ‘One Planet Development’. It is aimed at people who want to develop ecologically sound land-based businesses and it allows them to purchase greenbelt land and build a house on it, if they can evidence that their business is sustainable both financially and ecologically. It’s about supporting a sustainable living and helping people to keep their ecological footprint to a minimum. The Welsh Assembly Government adopted the scheme in 2011 and it has integrated it into its wider policy, One Wales: One Planet. The initiative is not for the faint of heart or the less-than-serious; applicants must provide rigorous evidence of both their ecological footprint and that they can truly live off the land, in some capacity.

The need for permanence, for nurturing that enduring relationship between land and livestock – that’s what makes the struggle of farming meaningful. This is something that we need to remember in encouraging and supporting the new farmers who want to turn the juggernaut of industrial agriculture around.

Photograph: Ecological Land Coop