Seemingly endless fields of corn and soybeans fill the landscape as you drive through the suburbs and rural communities of the greater Chicago area. So, it may not seem obvious why access to land is a problem for local sustainable food farmers. Here are a few reasons why this issue is so challenging and complex:
- Declining farmland acreage: Over time and even after the recession of 2008, the total amount of farmland in the greater Chicago area has continued to decline due to development.
- Real estate economics vs. sustainable farming economics: It is very difficult for a sustainable food farmer, especially one just starting out, to find and purchase a piece of property that is close to the major markets he/she wants to serve and is still reasonably affordable. The revenue stream most local food farmers can reasonably generate is not enough to cover the mortgage necessary to buy land in an area where land prices are high. A farmer may find cheaper land farther away from his or her markets, but travel times and transportation costs then become much higher. Not having a reasonable option to own land ultimately makes local food farming families less secure and less able to build up equity for the long-term.
- Not all farmland is equally suitable for all kinds of local food farmers: With the exception of organic grain farmers, whose land needs match up fairly closely with conventional corn and bean farmers, most other local sustainable food farmers have different and unique farmland needs. It can be challenging to find the right fit between farmer and land parcel. Sustainable vegetable producers, for example, need smaller acreages of land and greater amounts of infrastructure like irrigation, barn buildings, coolers, washing facilities, tool sheds, hoop houses, green houses, and even homes to live in. Public and private landowners tend to be reluctant to invest in that kind of extensive infrastructure.
- Few landowners are willing to provide long-term leases: Sustainable food farming is inherently a long-term proposition. Transitioning land that has been farmed conventionally to organic certification takes 36 months from the date of the last application of prohibited chemicals. More importantly, building the biological health and vitality of farmland takes time. It simply does not make sense for a sustainable farmer to begin to invest in the health of a piece of land if he/she won’t be able to enjoy the full benefits of that investment.
- Looking for land (or farmers) in all the wrong places: Local food farmers and landowners face unique challenges in not only finding each other, but also in being able to work out a mutually beneficial arrangement. Figuring out a lease agreement, for example, is more complex and customized than the typical corn and soybeans agreement. Sustainable food farming entails a far greater farmer presence on the land over the course of the year, so finding the right fit in terms of personalities and values also is very important.
- We need a wider variety of local sustainable farming enterprises: When people think of local, sustainable food, they often think of vegetables. However, grains and meat compose a much larger percentage of the average American family’s diet. Our local food system needs more local grain growers and livestock grazers to fully take advantage of the land access opportunities that are emerging, which are often not a good fit for vegetable farming.
Over the last two years, the Land Access Pilot Project team conducted farm site visits, pursued specific land access opportunities with public and private landowners, developed a best practices guide for land access, researched farmlink programs across the country, built connections with land trusts and farmer networks, and explored farmland protection strategies.
Moving forward, we are undertaking the following activities to address the land access challenges we’ve uncovered:
- Testing models of land access: To test models of land access, we are making connections between specific landowners and food farmers with the help of land trusts and other partners. We are also pursuing land preservation opportunities that could lead to situations where a local food farmer could buy a piece of farmland at a price significantly less expensive than market rates. What we learn from this model will inform our long-term land access efforts and those of others. The Liberty Prairie Foundation’s innovative partnership with Conserve Lake County and the Lake County Forest Preserve District at Casey Farm, has been a valuable learning opportunity as well.
- Sharing resources and laying groundwork for Land Access Connections Initiative: Through the Breaking Ground report, we are making available a wealth of insight and information to help farmers and landowners looking to make connections. We are developing additional educational resources and are also designing a program that will provide a hub of ongoing, comprehensive support for farmers and landowners. We are also helping to educate beginning farmers on land access issues.
- Engaging with public landowners of farmland: Public landowners, including conservation districts that have explicit commitments to land conservation, own and manage more than 10,000 acres of farmland in the greater Chicago area. We are pursuing opportunities with public landowners to develop systematic ways to expand access for local sustainable food farmers on their lands.
- Pursuing policy change: We have conducted extensive research into policy models across the nation and will now pursue policy strategies that are well suited for the unique challenges of land access in northeastern Illinois.
- Contributing to an increase in the number of organic grain farmers and livestock grazers in the region: We are working to develop partnerships (or perhaps even the formation of a new organization) that will support new sustainable grain growers and livestock grazers.
Resources for farmers & landowners
The following are a very short list of helpful resources for farmer and landowners. Most of these resources focus on the details of working out a good lease arrangement but some are more inclusive of the whole land access process:
- Comprehensive Resources
- Farmland Preservation & Land Trusts
- Agricultural Conservation Easements Fact Sheet: If you’re a private landowner and would like to be assured that your farmland will not be developed and instead will be reserved for agricultural uses, then an agricultural conservation easement could be a very useful tool for you if there is a land trust in your area which will accept the donation of the easement. In some cases, land trusts and/or public bodies may even be able to purchase the agricultural conservation easement from you, which is also known as the purchase of development rights (here is a fact sheet on how this works).
- Finding Farmland: A Farmer’s Guide to Working with Land Trusts: The National Young Farmers Coalition is a dynamic organization that does great work. If you’re a farmer seeking access to land, land trusts can connect you with opportunities you would otherwise not be aware of including land that has been preserved from development. This guide will help you understand what land trusts are and how they might be able to help you and what their restraints may be.
- Seven Key Habits for Building Better Relationships: This short article from Fast Company will get you thinking about a key element of the success (or failure) of a farmer-landowner arrangement—relationship. Sustainable farming on leased land is inherently a closer, more cooperative, involved, longer-term relationship than conventional farming arrangements. Just as sustainable farming starts with the biology of your soil, good and enduring farmer-landowner connections are built on the quality of your relationships. Paying attention to it and putting effort into it will pay off.
Through the Land Access Pilot Project, we have begun developing programs and services that will help make it possible for many landowners, farmers, and other partners to make more land access happen in systematic ways.
We are happy to share what we’ve learned so far and to let you know if there are ways we or other partners could help you with any land access challenges you face. We are building a network of farmers, landowners, investors, non-profits, for-profits, and government agencies engaged in different elements of land access. If we have the right connection for your particular issue, we will share it.
We also welcome requests to speak to groups about this work and the importance of expanding local sustainable food farming.
If you have questions or a request for a presentation, please contact Nathan Aaberg at nathan(at)libertyprairie.org or 847-548-4062, ext. 21.
The Liberty Prairie Foundation’s core partner in the Land Access Pilot Project is Openlands. Founded in 1963, Openlands is the regional non-profit land conservation organization of the greater Chicago area. For more than 50 years it has been protecting the natural and open spaces of northeastern Illinois and the surrounding region through land preservation, policy and planning initiatives, citizen engagement in nature stewardship, and advocacy.
Our launch of the three-year Land Access Pilot Project was made possible by the generous support of the Food:Land:Opportunity – Localizing the Chicago Foodshed initiative. This is funded through The Searle Funds at The Chicago Community Trust in partnership with Kinship Foundation. The initiative seeks to strengthen the resiliency of the region by increasing the supply of local and sustainable food. Click here for the Chicago Community Trust 2014 Annual Report which features Food:Land:Opportunity on pages 36 and 37.
Since beginning this work, we have also begun working with a variety of public bodies and private organizations (including a number of local land trusts, like the Land Conservancy of McHenry County, The Conservation Foundation, and the Barrington Area Conservation Trust) as well as a variety of landowners, farmers, and socially-minded investors. We’re happy to say that there is growing interest in making it possible for more sustainable food farmers to grow more good food.