FAYETTE COUNTY, West Virginia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When Josh Stover started raising a few chickens 10 years ago in West Virginia, he just wanted to make sure his family had enough meat and eggs – but then things snowballed.
Within a year, he had 100 birds, which were followed by a herd of dairy goats, sheep, cows and pigs, as Stover’s project grew into a business selling at farmers markets and local restaurants in the eastern U.S. state.
He quickly ran out of space. So, he opted to lease some land, including a 30-acre (12-hectare) parcel that he was settling into last year when the owner decided to sell.
Now, Stover faces two linked issues: how to find enough land and how to pay for it.
“I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing if I had to go out and take out a huge loan and buy land,” Stover, 35, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “I’m not hoping to get into an astronomical amount of debt starting a farm.”
Land access is a growing problem in the United States, where land prices have spiked and about 40% of farmland is rented, according to federal figures cited by the nonprofit American Farmland Trust.
Farming groups in southern West Virginia and nearly a dozen other parts of the country are hoping to find one solution in a modern version of an old idea: the commons.
They plan to use a form of community-based land ownership to allow charities to grant affordable, long-term land leases to small-scale farmers.
“We have a lot of movements and nonprofits focused on conserving farmland … But nobody is focusing on land ownership,” said Ian McSweeney, organizational director for the Agrarian Trust, the national entity overseeing the new project.
“If farmers don’t have long-term, secure tenure on their land, (they have) no guarantee,” he said.
The Agrarian Commons project, which started operating this month, is similar to a model that has become increasingly common in the United States as a way to get more people access to affordable housing: a community land trust.
Under that approach, a nonprofit retains the title to the land beneath a property, thereby decreasing the home’s price and ensuring it stays affordable indefinitely for future homebuyers.
Stover first heard about the Agrarian Commons from the group that runs the community farm he moved his livestock to in February.
The New Roots Community Farm, which formed in 2016, is reviving an 84-acre (34-hectare) property just outside the county seat of Fayetteville, nestled in the Appalachian Mountains and along one of the region’s deepest river gorges.
The farm aims to lease out land to farmers while also helping them build up their skills — part of a push to jumpstart a new local economy amid the decline of coal mining, according to organizers.
In 2016 there was a recognition that protecting agricultural lands “to save them from development wasn’t really doing any favours to agriculture unless we were figuring out ways to get farmers back on these pieces of land,” said Gabriel J. Pena, deputy resource coordinator for Fayette County.
That realization was one of the motivations behind the formation of New Roots, but remaining under county ownership meant the project itself was land insecure.
When Stover moved his animals onto the farm it was being run by the county and had been given only a five-year guarantee, with the chance that the property could be sold at any time.
“That means we could make no guarantees (when) bringing people onto the land,” farm manager Susanna Wheeler said, as Stover’s geese, sheep and cattle roamed the property.
“So, it became a priority to find a long-term strategy for how to gain control of this land and continue the work everybody’s invested in so far.”
The Agrarian Commons is a way to delink agricultural land from market forces, noted McSweeney at the Agrarian Trust, which says an average of 37 midsize farms close in the United States every day.
Real estate values for farms more than doubled from 2000 to 2015, the USDA found in 2018.
Meanwhile, farm incomes have stayed relatively flat, particularly with commodity prices falling in recent years.
“A sustainable farm these days can’t afford to cover the debt on its land cost, and it’s just getting worse,” said McSweeney.
“So anything less than decommodifying the land is just putting a Band-Aid until the next generation, when it will be worse.”
The Agrarian Commons launched with an initial tranche of 12 farms across the country, including New Roots, covering a total of 2,400 acres (971 hectares).
Each has been converting into a separate nonprofit that oversees its own lands and projects, while following a set of bylaws around soil management, financial structures and more, said McSweeney.
While the length of leases remains up in the air, the intent is for many to be 99 years, organizers said.
Farmers leasing land under the commons will not be charged per acre but rather based on individual agreements of what is affordable for each farm, said McSweeney, suggesting rates of $5,000 to $12,000 per year.
Similar models operate in Europe, said McSweeney, where about 18 organizations are overseeing commons-type setups.
One of those, Terre de Liens in France, has raised 90 million euros ($97 million) and acquired 220 farms for a nationwide commons since 2003, according to statistics provided by the group.
In the United States, part of the push behind the Agrarian Commons is a looming demographic reality: The average age of U.S. farmers is 62, said McSweeney.
And 400 million acres (162 million hectares) of land is expected to change ownership in the next two decades as many of those farmers retire, he added.
The Agrarian Commons project offers “a way to carry forward the legacy they’ve created,” he added.
Other organizations working on farmland conservation have applauded the project.
“The larger issue today is very fundamental: It’s about affordable capital and affordable land, and quite often both,” said Jerry Cosgrove, farm legacy director with American Farmland Trust.
“Those are the fundamental issues that the Agrarian Trust is using this approach to try to address.”
In Fayette County, Wheeler, the manager of New Roots farm, said the commons can also help preserve farmland that could otherwise be sold to developers.
Now, becoming part of the Agrarian Trust means the farm can purchase the land from the county – but also expand by seeking to purchase some other properties, potentially putting farmers like Josh Stover on a piece of property with a 99-year lease.
For Stover, that would mean stability for his business and his family.
“Not only can I farm this awesome land,” he said, “but I can transfer that land to my two young kids.”