News from the Farm | February 2, 2015

“In the next 20 years, 400 million acres of farmland will change hands.” Severine von Tscharner Fleming was speaking to a gathering of young and not so young farmers and farm allies in Capay Valley at the Guinda Grange Hall. She came equipped with facts, stories, models and strategies to share – all with a purpose to ensure land access to a rising generation of agriculturalists.

In the Capay Valley, we are fortunate to have a growing community of young and beginning farmers and ranchers. The challenges they face to build a successful career are numerous, but perhaps the biggest is reliable access to land. Nationwide, the price of farmland has risen dramatically in recent years, more than tripling in value from 2003 to 2013. What’s happening to farmland in the U.S. is part of a larger phenomenon also occurring in developing countries.

“The first years of the twenty-first century will be remembered for a global land rush of nearly unprecedented scale,” according to the recent report Down on the Farm by The Oakland Institute. A number of global and national factors have combined to make farmland a much sought after investment. In 2008, a global food crisis swept developing countries causing prices of staple foods such as rice to spike causing protests and even riots. Precipitated by the recession, pension and hedge fund investors have moved toward real assets, viewing domestic farmland as a relatively safe bet. As one financial analyst pointed out, it’s “like gold with yield.”

In California’s Central Valley, this has led to thousands of acres being planted to high value export crops such as almonds, pistachios, and walnuts. Water scarcity aside, these new owners seek an economy of scale to profitably serve foreign market demand.

It is in this market context that small farmers must compete for farmland. Key to supporting the next generation of farmers is ensuring access to fertile ground. The Agrarian Trust, co-founded by Von Tscharner Fleming, is leading a conversation about the future of farmland ownership. The grassroots group envisions “a farmland commons made up of many small farms that feed their communities and enrich the environment.”

In this era of a sharing economy, new models of co-ownership of land are being created. In France, a cooperative of consumers pooled investments of $5,000 to purchase thousands of hectares that are leased to 112 small farms. In the US, individuals and communities are putting land into trusts while allowing farmers to build equity by investing in infrastructure and buildings. Locally, Capay Valley’s Good Humus Produce pioneered the “One Farm at a Time” campaign to place their farm into trust. While the media buzzes about new tech companies like Uber and Airbnb, community supported agriculture (CSA) and food co-ops have built the soil for a vibrant sharing and co-ownership economy over decades.

Looking forward, what’s needed and what’s possible? How do we participate together to create a food system that meets our individual, family and community needs? A good place to start is by ensuring beginning farmers and ranchers have a place to put down roots, and invest their time, sweat, and cash.

What would our communities be like with more thriving small farms? The Grange meeting sparked enthusiasm to continue a conversation to answer these questions. And a clear sense that the Capay Valley is a good place to try new models that support young farmers and ranchers.

– Thomas Nelson

Capay Valley Farm Shop, a network of 40 small family farms in the Capay Valley