Where’s the Land?




Before getting into the content of today’s post, I think it is important to acknowledge the recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. The bill may be a far cry from what Democrats campaigned on in recent years, but I think there are many things in the Act that will help Americans, such as hopefully lower prices on certain drugs and insulin as well as rebates and tax credits for those looking to upgrade home energy systems and transportation.


Personally, I think this Act is but one step towards reducing our dependency on fossil fuels, and there are different opinions regarding the Act’s ultimate impact on inflation. I also think that passing this legislation—as onerous and uncertain as that process was—was the easy part. 


As WBUR has already commented, the Act’s implementation is the hard part. In her book, Short Circuiting Policy, political scientist Leah Stokes argues that climate legislation frequently enters the “fog of enactment”: government agencies still need to fill in the blanks of implementing the Act, and there is time for special interests to shape and challenge implementation. Many observers have noted that the Act contains concessions to the oil and gas industry; it remains to be seen how those concessions will ultimately play out.


Additionally, climate change is just one of the planetary boundaries that we are exceeding or in danger of exceeding. There are also other kinds of environmental destruction—agricultural runoff, material wastes, loss of biodiversity—that affect human life and need to be addressed. Some of the agricultural grant and technical-assistance programs supported by the Act could help reduce those impacts, though.


In short, the Act, while potentially helpful, should not stop us thinking about how we can reimagine our economies. I’ve had the pleasure these last few weeks to talk with community farmers on issues related to supplying local food. Community farming may be critical to reimagining our economies in a more sustainable way—and perhaps rebuilding social capital—but one key question keeps coming up.


Where will we get the land for this?


Many sources indicate that large-scale industrial agriculture is a major contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions around the world. Some countries, like The Netherlands, are undertaking significant measures to reduce nitrogen emissions stemming from agriculture. While I think it is important to reduce these emissions, I can see why many farmers feel their livelihoods are being threatened. The Netherlands is a major exporter of dairy products, and reducing agricultural emissions there and in other places is likely to be a contentious process.


I’ve recently met with smaller-scale farmers who believe that a future is possible where a greater share of food is grown locally on smaller farms. New England Feeding New England is one research effort that seeks to determine how New England can grow 30% of the food it consumes within the region. Supporters of growing and buying food locally argue that locally grown food can reduce agriculture’s environmental impact and help support rural economies.


I usually side with supporters of growing food locally, but I also recognize that agriculture is a complex issue with various challenges. For instance, not every crop can or should be grown locally, e.g., coffee and tea in New England. Relying more on local food may result in fewer food choices: it’s certainly possible that people’s tastes can adapt, but many economists would view fewer choices as a loss of utility.


Putting those considerable challenges and uncertainties aside for now, there remains a fundamental question to rethinking agriculture in the United States, indeed of rethinking other vital aspects of the American economy, like housing: where will the land come from? Brian Donahue’s excellent pamphlet, Go Farm, Young People, and Help the Country, discusses this question and what needs to happen to help make land more accessible to smaller-scale farmers.


For smaller-scale farmers, it’s not easy to buy land. Continuing development pressures—not to mention competition from banks and wealthy individuals buying land—are driving up the cost of land. Taking out a mortgage may not be viable, especially if rising interest payments outpace your profitability. High land prices essentially ensure that only larger-scale, industrial farms will be able to afford land.


As Donahue’s pamphlet describes—and farmers have confirmed with me—land trusts play an important role in preserving land for smaller farms as well as other community uses. Land trusts typically purchase or acquire land, taking them off the private market and reserving them for specific uses, such as conservation, community farming, affordable housing, and so forth. Many land trusts specifically prohibit certain types of development of the land, such as suburban-style, single-use housing lots.


For agriculture, land trusts can rent out the land to smaller-scale farmers or new farmers at lower rents relative to market-rate land. Local farming operations that might otherwise get crushed by higher rents or interest rates could then have a chance to survive in its local market. 


There are many ways in which land trusts acquire land. Sometimes they purchase it outright. Other times, large landowners—often those with an interest in seeing their land not sold for development or maintained for local agriculture—will either donate their land or agree to accept less than the market price for it. These donations and sales sometimes allow the sellers and their descendants to continue to live on the land, while it is being conserved or farmed by others. It’s not even just land that can be donated or sold to a trust; many have sold or donated their suburban houses to land trusts, which the trusts can sell to raise money to acquire and conserve land (see this resource for more information: Agrarian Trust).


In any case, land trusts require money to operate. The Inflation Reduction Act includes $1.4bn for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, which could facilitate land acquisition and conservation by land trusts. 


But ultimately it’s up to existing landowners to answer a key question about selling land: is it better to sell land on the market seeking the highest prices, where it’s not clear what the land would be used for, or to donate or sell at likely lower prices to a trust that would preserve the land? As I continue my interviews I will be seeking answers as to why landowners might decide to donate or sell land to land trusts. While some would argue that these landowners are acting against their economic self-interest, they are also capable of transcending that interest and acting for the common good.