This post was written by Young Farmers’ Land Campaign Director, Holly Rippon-Butler, for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s blog.
This past year has highlighted the critically important role that young farmers and ranchers play in stewarding natural resources, advocating for policy change, and supporting food security. Yet, access to affordable, quality farmland—the key resource that these growers need—remains deeply inequitable and out of reach for far too many.
The National Young Farmers Coalition released a new report, Land Policy: Towards a More Equitable Farming Future, that illustrates the critical connection between land, policy and power. The report highlights the challenges young farmers, and in particular, Black, Indigenous, and other farmers of color (BIPOC), face accessing land and provides a detailed path forward through policy change.
Young Farmers released this report alongside a new Land Policy website which includes profiles of farmers who are navigating the challenges of accessing land as well as a growing library of resources and policy solutions that lawmakers can implement now to facilitate secure, equitable land access for growers. Together, these resources provide a toolkit for farmers, policymakers, organizations and advocates to understand these issues and take action.
Understanding the Issue
Access to farmland remains the number one barrier facing aspiring farmers today, and this barrier is even higher for farmers of color. Land ownership is rooted in the dispossession of Indigenous land and centuries of stolen labor from people of color—both sanctioned through public policy—while the contributions these communities have made to U.S. agriculture remain largely unacknowledged. This history is essential to understanding the land access challenges young farmers face today.
While the challenge of access to land is nearly universal, the nuances vary significantly depending on your vantage point. Farmers in arid parts of the U.S. must navigate complex management structures to secure necessary water resources. In urban areas, farmers grapple with zoning barriers and contaminated soil. Land-related challenges are compounded for Black, Indigenous, Latinx, farm workers, women, immigrants, and LGBTQ+ individuals due to the intersection of land access challenges with structural racism and other tools of systemic oppression.
Part of the reason finding secure access to farmland is so complex is that farmers are not simply searching for land to grow on, they are looking for land to build a life upon. Further, land often changes hands without ever coming onto the formal real estate market, presenting a serious challenge for young farmers in particular, many of whom didn’t grow up in farming and aren’t connected to networks of landowners.
These factors all intersect with the affordability of the land. The prospect of saving enough money for a down payment while employed in agriculture is an elusive promise. Paradoxically, gaining the skills to actually run your own farm business often puts that same dream out of reach. For many farm workers, especially those who have traveled to the U.S. to work, language barriers, legal obstacles, and ingrained systems of oppression in farm labor mean that the dream is even further removed from possibility.
Ultimately, while it may be possible to find available land to grow on, accessing land where a farmer can have the security that they need to invest in the land and their business can prove to be a nearly insurmountable barrier. For many, land ownership will forever be out of reach and leasing might be the only option. But leases often prevent a farmer from building financial equity, locking them into low-income careers with little prospect of saving and few avenues to grow their businesses without valuable collateral to borrow against.
Private Property, Land Loss and Wealth
The system of private property rights, which is based on an extractive relationship with land, is at the root of the land access challenge. The fact that land is a limited resource that is steadily being degraded, alongside the impacts of generational wealth-building, further exacerbate the issue.
Land as an entity that can be bought and sold is a settler-colonial construct. This framework has been enforced through the United States’ political and legal systems, and it has been used to dispossess Indigenous people of billions of acres of land. Land has been tied to wealth extraction from every community of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color in America since Columbus. The result is deep inequity—98 percent of farmland in the U.S. is owned by white people and 95 percent of farmers are white.
This inequity exists against the backdrop of numerous other challenges—the cost of land is rising, the climate crisis threatens farm viability, farm consolidation marches on, land continues to be developed at an alarming rate, and the agricultural land that remains is increasingly owned by non-farmers.
Strikingly, the USDA estimates 30 percent of farmland is now owned by non-farmers; 40 percent of farmland is leased; and nearly 45 percent of landlords have never farmed. As investor interest in farmland grows, the consequences are significant for farmers who cannot compete in terms of price or speed of purchase.
And that competition is getting steeper as the resource itself dwindles. According to the American Farmland Trust, farmland is lost at a rate of 2,000 acres per day. The land that is paved over and turned into housing developments is disproportionately high-quality land around urban areas, precisely where young farmers want to grow.
As land is lost from agriculture or sold to non-farmers, farmers themselves are competing for what remains and being driven towards economies of scale that perpetuate consolidation of land. Forty-one percent of farmland in the U.S. is operated by just over 7 percent of the farms.
Who Owns the Land Matters
Land ownership has a cumulative effect on farm viability. When farmers own land, they can leverage that land to capitalize further land purchases, infrastructure investments, or other forms of saving that benefit future generations. The effects are clear: in the Coalition’s 2017 survey of young farmers across the country, the average farm size of respondents who came from farm families was 87.25 compared to 12 acres for those from non-farming backgrounds.
Who owns the land matters in part because a lot of wealth is tied up in farmland. The overall value of farm real estate in 2020 was forecast to be $2.58 trillion, accounting for over 80 percent of all 2020 farm sector assets. Access to this land and wealth is directly tied to the ability to succeed in agriculture. However, the problem is bigger than simply who owns the land. We must look critically at the policies that have perpetuated commodification and inequity in land over centuries.
Land, Policy and Power
Land is a canvas where the results of a racialized system that uses extraction as a tool is made visible. If we are going to advocate for policies that move towards a more equitable farming future, we must understand the ways in which policy and land have been deeply intertwined to create our present reality.
Land has been tied to controlling access to political power ever since colonial land laws prohibiting non-white ownership and restricting voting to those who owned land. Once in power, those individuals proceeded to enact policies designed to perpetuate their control of land-based resources. Strategies of this work have included dispossession and fractionation, employing state-sanctioned violence; redistribution of land to white individuals; and denying access to the resources necessary to acquire and hold land, such as home mortgages and farm loans.
Once the system of land ownership that privileged white male landowners was established, tax laws and programs that provide government dollars to landowners have continued to benefit these owners without explicit statements of discrimination. These strategies have played out through executive orders, legislative action, judicial rulings, and administrative implementation. These tools of oppression can be turned to tools of liberation, but dedicated advocacy is required.
In the face of this history, there is an equally strong narrative of resistance and innovation from communities of color. Many of the practices of what we call sustainable, regenerative, and organic farming in fact come from BIPOC communities. Tools such as land trusts, community supported agriculture, and critical policy advocacy that have advanced civil rights in the face of land-based discrimination have been led by those communities. The history of resistance is equally important and forms the framework on which we will learn and build our current resistance and dismantling work.
Secure access to land is the foundation of vibrant communities, food sovereignty, climate resiliency, and sound farm businesses. It is critically important for food safety, mental health, market access, farm planning, soil improvements, and navigating severe weather events.
A greater percentage of U.S. farmland than ever before is farmed by individuals nearing the end of their career – meaning hundreds of millions of acres are expected to change hands in the coming decade. This represents an incredible opportunity to shift power and resources, but bold policy change is needed. If we do nothing, the forces of wealth accumulation and extraction from the land will continue, and we will lose a generation of young growers who are trained and stand ready to grow food for their communities.
As illustrated, public policy is at the heart of land use and many of the challenges that farmers face accessing land. Policy has shaped our food system and must be part of the bold, systemic change required to tackle its interconnected challenges. As millions of acres are predicted to change hands in the coming years, there is a real opportunity to work towards land justice, rematriation, and more equitable models of land access that put land in the hands of young, diverse farmers.
Young Farmers’ report offers a path forward through key principles to guide policy solutions, as well as important, actionable steps that policy makers can implement now to create more secure, equitable land access for the next generation of growers.
Specifically, the report calls on policymakers to act now to:
1. Eliminate inequities in land ownership and access;
2. Protect farmland for producers;
3. Facilitate appropriate, affordable, and secure land tenure; and
4. Support farm viability and transition.
The report acknowledges and uplifts the work that farmers, and farmers of color in particular, are doing to address inequity and land access challenges through organizing in their communities, and urges policy makers to reflect the values and examples embedded in that work.
For more detailed state, federal, and local policy recommendations, see the full report.
Land is fundamental to survival. Access to this resource should not be a privilege. As we work toward a future defined by racial equity, community well-being, and climate resilience, land must be centered in our policymaking and our organizing.