News From the Farm | September 21, 2020

It sometimes feels like our lives have been put on hold as we navigate the current reality. Our friends are more separate, our children tethered close to home, we are using our computer screens to assess body language and connect in ways that aren’t real and human. It is not a healthy development and we need to redesign. Now may be a time of opportunity.

My daughter, Hallie and my sister Marianne are grade school teachers faced with the task of trying to create effective on-line learning for their students. They witness that it doesn’t work to have young students spend hours looking at a computer screen.

Marianne emotionally describes her 4th grade class and how the screen is simply no way to teach, to nurture, or to pay attention to each student in her class. We have not figured out how to do our teaching and connection and necessary human social functions incorporated into cells or bubbles of safe association. We may need to define the scope of our bubbles or extent of the cells and make all parts responsible to the well being of the whole. Perhaps all of you have figured that out. But we may need to redesign our day to re-establish our humanity.

A few years ago, I wrote a Beet article that asked a question about the ability to raise capital to buy a farm down the road and hold it as a community asset. There were many details – the legal structure to hold it, the capacity to raise capital and the myriad of details to make the values clear when a community comes together to hold and manage a property. That piece of land sold to another buyer, but the idea did not stop with that sale. In the intervening years, structure has been created and capacity built with farmers, legal support, and a whole group of community thinkers across the country. A small group of Capay Valley residents have formed a local Agrarian Commons – a legal structure capable of buying, holding and then leasing the land to be held and adhering to the principles of Agrarian Trust. We got organized and built a new structure.

There is now another farm down the road. This land is central to the operation of Riverdog Farm- a neighboring organic farm and a key farm in the Valley community. Tim Mueller and Trini Campbell own and operate Riverdog and have been farming and building infrastructure on this 245-acre parcel that they rented for the past 25 years. This past spring the landowner decided to sell and put up a ‘For Sale’ sign. The asking price of $2.5 million put it far out of the reach of Tim and Trini. It appeared that a sale could end their tenure there, and they could lose their many years of investment in that property. It became time to ask the question again: ‘Can a larger community come together to purchase and hold land for the benefit of the regional food economy and as investment in a regenerative model of farming?’

The conversations around the word Regeneration are gaining momentum.  Initially coined by the good folks at the Rodale Institute, the concept sought to go beyond the notion of a sustainable system of farming to embrace one that is generating greater soil fertility and stability year after year, crop after crop.  This concept isn’t limited to soil and farming practices but demands that we address the social impacts of our present food system and the historical hollowing out of rural places as healthy and vibrant communities.

Aldo Leopold, the author of the Sand County Almanac wrote, “We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”  We might substitute ‘Labor’ for ‘land’ in that quote and find much the same issue and outcome.

Over the past couple of years, we have been talking about another mechanism for holding land and creating a tool for making land accessible to the next gen of farmers or to underserved women or minority farmers. This past spring, farmers and community members in the Capay Valley formed the Capay Valley Agrarian Commons. We joined 9 other regions in the country as a local Commons under the umbrella organization called Agrarian Trust.

We are formed to take advantage of land that is coming up for sale in our Valley and look to begin to invest more directly as a community in food and fiber production that is enhancing our regional economy; make a direct investment in farms that will capture carbon through practices that focus on soil health and enhancing biological diversity on a farm; and create a pathway for affordable accessible land tenure for new farmers, underserved farmers and farmers connecting and working with a community of farm supporters. 

These are lofty goals, and not easy to make work. It is clear that stable land tenure-ship is a cornerstone investment in sustainability. Holding land with a commitment to the intention of using that land in a way that improves the larger whole and is ethically connected to larger motivations than annual profit and maximum production changes the paradigm and attempts to solve for a larger pattern of investment in solutions as a shared commitment. It is hard enough for a new farmer to enter the business without the burden of financing a land purchase as well as incurring the costs of building a farm, financing the equipment, making mistakes and finding a market.

Building a more resilient and diverse food system will require that we think about the issues and drivers that are shaping our relationship with farms and deal with underlying issues with new thinking. There are some great organizations that have been working with these issues for many years. The Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons Nebraska has been strategizing on renewing and rebuilding rural communities in the heartland of this country, At Full Belly we have been seeking to build a model farm that reflects many of the same values.

In our 35 years at this farm, it became one of our priorities to buy our land. We worked long hours and were fortunate to be able to do so. That simple act allowed us to farm organically, plant trees, shape a diverse ecology, plant cover-crops and capture atmospheric carbon to feed the soil. We could make the decisions that allowed us to reinvest in the land and a whole farm ecology with some of the profits that we made annually. Not everyone is able to follow that path, but a community can rethink that and come up with a different solution to restore and regenerate the health of the places that feed us and do the work of regeneration.

A healthy food system requires renewal and succession planning. Resilient regional economies require developing the mechanisms for land and capital access and support of new entrepreneurship. Land access and the security to build a farm enterprise requires strategies for those moments when property comes up for sale so that we can apply tools to secure that land for those who intend to live on the property and add to the regional food economy.

The work of change involves creative thinking about the history that built the present, clear thinking about its successes and failings, identifying targets and strategies to do something different.  I write again to gauge interest in thinking through and applying new thinking to solve for a larger pattern on shared investment and responsibility for making something healthier. Let me know if supporting a Commons concept seems doable and interesting to you.

Thanks, Paul Muller

Photos by Lauren Betts