It’s a bit odd that land reform is barely mentioned in most progressive agendas. Maybe that's because it is seen as challenging the presumed virtues of private property and capitalist markets. Yet secure access and tenure to land is essential for achieving so many progressive goals, from building new sorts of regional food systems to providing affordable housing and enabling local self-determination and personal well-being.
Severine von Tscharner Fleming put it well in the latest episode (#10) of my podcast Frontiers of Commoning: “At the root of peace is sufficiency and wholeness, and that means people having their needs met, people being fed. And that sufficiency and wholeness can be achieved only through a certain level of sovereignty over land and self-determination that is rooted in land.”
Severine is a young organic farmer, activist and organizer based in Maine who has had a remarkably productive career as an advocate for young farmers and land reform. She helped start Agrarian Trust, an organization dedicated to supporting land access for the next generation of farmers. In recent years, Agrarian Trust has started ten Agrarian Commons in the US, in an attempt to make community-supported, collectively stewarded farmland available to younger farmers. As the project notes: “With 400 million acres of land in the U.S. expected to change hands over the next two decades, the time for transformation in land ownership is now.”
Agrarian Trust is just one of many new ventures that Severine has helped set in motion. She also played a key role in starting Greenhorns, a grassroots cultural organization that produces a literary journal, radio show, blog, and other media for young farmers. She helped launch Farm Hack, a project that designs and builds farm equipment using open source principles.
More recently, Fleming pulled together Seaweed Commons, a network of people concerned about seaweed aquaculture and intertidal commoning. The project is focused on improving “the ecological literacy of stakeholders in the marine economy.” The challenge includes preventing toxic algae blooms, capturing the runoff of nutrients from salmon pens around the world, and ensuring ethical, environmentally responsible cultivation of seaweed for biofuels and aquaculture.
As you might imagine, Severine is a ball of creative energy and passionate commitment, precisely the traits needed to engage in and promote commoning. I find her work so inspiring because she has learned to fly by leaping off cliffs and flapping her wings. You develop different sorts of muscles that way!
Ian McSweeney, the organizational director of Agrarian Trust, also joined me in the podcast interview. Ian works from his farm and forest in New Hampshire, and thinks a lot about how to protect land from development, how to transfer it to new generations of farmers and ranchers, and how to assure that they have secure land tenure.
Ian talked in greater depth and detail about Agrarian Trust’s efforts to acquire land and steward it as commons. Ian comes to this challenge after years of work with the gritty complications of land tenure and conservation, and in trying to build new types of local food systems that are regenerative, diversified, and community-minded.
A big part of this challenge is finding ways to take land off the market and decommodify it. McSweeney explained: “We decommodify land by moving it out of private ownership into community-centered, nonprofit ownership. And then we restrict that land from being sold on the open market ever again. We also restrict the land from taking on debt beyond a 20% cap of the property’s value. We don’t want to put that land at risk.”
Fleming added that the pandemic is “intensifying the market pressures on land, especially in towns around cities. This has been a year when farmlands and farm properties have been sold within hours of being listed at prices far above what would normally be justified by farmland.”
“As farms are being gobbled up and sliced-and-diced into lifestyle properties and private sanctuaries, it becomes clear that the valley floor has only so much ag land. So if we want the farm, we need to save the farm. We have the re-negotiate the terms under which our land is being managed and do it in a way that is more holistic and meets the needs of present and future generations.”
Listen to the rest of the interview, including discussion of Greenhorns, Farm Hack network, and Seaweed Commons, here.