First, a bit of context. The fundamental importance of agricultural land tenure is not new. “Equitable partition of land is the necessary basis of all self-sustaining agriculture,” wrote Liberty Hyde Bailey, known as the father of American horticulture, in 1909. Over one hundred years later, how farmers and ranchers access, hold, and transfer farms and farmland is more complex than ever. Traditional methods are no longer adequate. Today’s social and political lenses sharpen the focus on inequities, and complicate solutions.
Tenure, which means “to hold,” is both structural and personal. Land ownership is increasingly beyond reach for most new entrants. Tenancy is fraught with insecurity and burdened by historic and contemporary abuses. Farmland is increasingly concentrated in fewer—and older—hands. Farm landlords are more detached from their land and their tenants.
The good news is that more attention is focused on farm access and transfer, from USDA to the grassroots. More groups are helping producers—especially beginners— access land, with new tools and approaches.
Land For Good adds to the toolbox with its Farm Access Methods Guide. The purpose of the guide is to provide an organized framework of farm access methods to help farmers make informed decisions. A farmer’s tenure decisions are shaped by values but driven by practicalities. This guide addresses both. The options are organized into three categories based on land tenure realities: ownership now; ownership in the future; and no ownership. And while nearly all transactions fall into one of these categories, each transaction is unique.
This framework builds from the notion of land tenure as an apportionment of interests (rights) in a property. How the rights are divided, to whom, and by what instrument(s) shapes a farmer’s tenure. All transactions are categorized according to who holds which rights and under what terms and conditions. For example, in the Ownership Now category, a farmer can hold all the rights as sole owner. Or ownership rights can be shared. Or they can be divided. Ownership in the Future describes paths to ownership such as lease-to-own and gradual transfer of equity via a business entity. No Ownership looks at various lease types as well as licenses and other agreements.
But of course it’s more complicated. Each method in each category is briefly explained and then examined from two perspectives. The first set of factors addresses:
the parties and stakeholders;
legal and financial considerations;
equity and legacy provisions;
challenges and responsibilities;
advantages and disadvantages; and
for whom the method might be most appropriate.
So for example, a land-owning LLC is one shared ownership method. The guide explains who the parties are (in this case, the members), how the legal and financial arrangements might play out, how equity for the farmer is addressed, and the advantages and challenges of investing in land with others.
Next, the guide explores six variables for each method, and presents a graphic “score,” indicating the extent to which a particular method addresses the variable. The “scores” are not values-based; they reflect the authors’ and reviewers’ interpretation of the method. The variables are:
farming requirements; and
access to capital.
Finally, an “Ownership Score” places each method along a continuum of ownership rights. Here too, the score is not a judgment; it reflects the relative division of rights.
Land For Good’s Farm Access Methods Guide contains a simple graphic decision tool that depicts the categories, the methods, and who might be involved. It also includes a glossary and list of selected resources. Available online and in print, the guide is also a great resource for educators and farmer advisors.
The universe of creative variations to solving land access challenges is expanding. And farmers are becoming more knowledgeable about their options and opportunities. Together with partners, service providers, and advocates, land-seeking farmers will find methods to get onto and hold land that will lead to farming success.
Looking for more help? This video explains just one aspect of using the Finding Farmland Calculator. Find all of the instructional videos at youngfarmers.org/calculator.
Still wondering which land tenure option feels right for your farm goals? Try out this Farm Access Decisions Activity. It will help you take a structured approach to comparing two different farm access methods.
Remember to refer back to the farm goals and vision that you worked on in Lesson 1.