Few experiences are more rewarding and challenging than stewarding plants through the variables of a living world. With seeds in our hands, we hold time capsules of possibility. The success of harvest rests in our ability to adapt and learn each season, and in our willingness to plant in the face of uncertainty. The crops we sow are already blooming in our mind’s eye long before the soil heats up and it is our choice to imagine a fruitful outcome that sprouts change.
Even so, the present moment can be a difficult one to sit with. In the face of climate change, inequity and the current instability in our supply chains, we can feel limited. Though we can intuit the deep, sweeping changes needed to bring harmony to our communities and environment, we can feel less than qualified to act. The truth is, like those small seeds, it is our choices today that build the future we seek, and it is our dreaming that cradles the opportunity.
Supporting Land Access for Next Generation Farmers
As the next generation of farmers look to start small agricultural businesses in their regions, the barriers to entry and challenges are growing. Land is being consolidated and transferred out of the hands of growers and the inflated real estate marketplace is pricing many farmers out of buying land, holding onto their property and even edging elder farmers towards selling their land to the highest bidder, often removing it from the agricultural system indefinitely. While conservation easements and land trusts protect natural habitats and support good land stewardship, they do not necessarily protect or support small farmers utilizing ecological farming practices.
Fortunately, there is a nationwide nonprofit that hopes to pave a new way forward for sustainable agriculture and land tenure in the United States. Agrarian Trust
is a single national 501(c)(3) land trust with multiple local 501(c)(2) community land commons across the United States. The organization has reimagined land ownership and value through the development of the Agrarian Commons
Farmer and Communications Director at Agrarian Trust, Kristina Villa
, knows just how dire the situation is for small farmers facing the many challenges associated with land access. “Agriculture is in crisis. Because of escalating land market values, next-generation farmers who want to farm sustainably cannot afford to access land or must take on so much debt to do so that they are pressured out of sustainable practices.” Through donations, grants and limited debt capital, Agrarian Commons permanently removes viable agricultural land from the commodity market. It prevents the land from becoming developed and ensures that the land stays productive.
While this model is similar to a conservation trust, Kristina notes it has a few key differences. “Agrarian Trust does not use conservation easements, which permanently restrict land uses. Instead, Agrarian Trust ensures regenerative agriculture will be maintained on the land by farmers for generations to come. Another difference is the decentralized land ownership model, which places the power and control of land within the communities who are local to that place.”
Reimagining how land tenure works in a country with a highly privatized view of land ownership is no easy task, according to Kristina. “A unique challenge to the work of the Agrarian Commons is the mindset shift needed to think about and talk about land and people’s relationship to it in a different way. Instead of land being a commodity that is bought and sold, land needs to be seen as a resource that must be cared for responsibly and for the benefit of those who live in relationship with it.”
Agrarian Trust has accomplished a lot in just 2 years of existence. “In this past year, we raised funds and acquired land for a rematriation project in Massachusetts, found a farmer on Whidbey Island in Washington for the first land gifted into the Agrarian Commons, acquired to hold in perpetuity 82 acres of West Virginia farmland, accepted a land gift of 63 acres of New Hampshire farmland, and put out the Faithlands Toolkit
, which is a free guide that supports faith communities in considering their spiritual traditions and linking those core values and beliefs to the land.”
Right now, Agrarian Trust is working on securing land access for Black farmers in Roanoke, Virginia through a partnership with farmer Cam Terry
and in Richmond, Virginia through partnership with farmer and board member Duron Chavis
. The team at Agrarian Trust is especially inspired by these projects because these two urban farms are already deeply interconnected with community health and food access and are serving as catalysts for inspiring future generations to seek out lifestyles involving land stewardship.
With so much work already started, the team at Agrarian Trust is looking towards the future. In 10 years, they hope to have Agrarian Commons established in 40 states protecting over 100 farms. By reimagining how our food system works, Agrarian Trust is supporting passionate land keepers new and old, and creating a greener, more just future for us all.
Red Fern Farm in Floyd, Virginia
and his wife Vanessa own and operate Red Fern Farm
in Floyd County, Virginia. The farm includes an intensive, ¼ acre vegetable and flower operation, pastured heritage breed laying hens and an apiary. Andy and Vanessa are dedicated to regenerative land stewardship and manage every element of the operation with ecological health in mind. Though being a farmer was Andy’s childhood dream, he became an environmental educator and didn’t start farming until a chance encounter with a neighbor’s chicken ignited a passion in the couple to raise their family in deep relationship to plants, animals and soil.
Every piece of Red Fern Farm is intentional. Andy sees the benefit of diversity on the farm both for the health of his land and for the stability of his business. “Diversifying your products is key to success but you must know your limitations. For me, that takes the form of several ventures, vegetables, bees, chickens, flowers and a few other side projects. Ideally, I want to be a one stop shop farming operation. Realistically, the more I try to do, the more stressed I feel, and/or the quality of the product goes down. To combat this, I’ve really started to evaluate my farming enterprises and assess their long-term sustainability.”
Working with ¼ acre requires lots of planning and successional thinking. Making a profit on a bio-intensively planted plot even more so. Andy has fine-tuned his systems and is always ready to adapt. “I look at my first and last frost dates and my 10-hour day windows. I use these numbers to determine what seeds I need to purchase, the quantity based on their days to maturity, and whether I will be direct seeding or transplanting them. On top of that, I also use my sales data to assess which crops sell best during what time of year and rotate in different crop successions based on what is performing.”
Andy's advice for growers is to think about the farm not as it is now, but as it will be in the future. “Make sure to standardize every bed so that all your equipment works interchangeably. Measure out your property so you are placing buildings and growing spaces in the correct locations, not necessarily for the farm you have now, but the farm you hope to have as you grow and develop your business. Start small but plan on growing and capitalize on your most valuable and limiting asset; land.”
Even so, it is a reality that things won’t always go as planned. Andy feels that planning for the future also requires planning for when things go wrong. “Plan for failures. Everybody has failure on the farm. You have to build in safeguards to ensure the long-term viability of your business. For me, that means I plant between 10-15% more than I think I will need. The cost of those few extra plant starts far outweighs your loss in potential revenue and food production. As a bonus, a full and bountiful table at market always looks more appealing and attracts more customers.”
As an environmental educator, Andy is well versed in the benefits of a healthy, balanced ecology. As extreme and variable weather patterns continue to impact the shoulder seasons of his farm, he has counteracted these challenges in part by supporting his land. "I believe that the farm is part of the natural ecosystem in which it exists. To this extent I intentionally plant trees and non-cash crop vegetation, including tons of perennials, to increase biological activity. I build and install birdhouses for the swallows and bluebirds to nest, resulting in amazing insect control, and I use on-farm resources to brew fermented plant juice and indigenous microorganism soil drenches. I truly think of my farm, the land I steward, as a living breathing ecosystem and try to find ways to build upon its resilience and positive attributes.”
For Andy, hope sprouts from the work and the community that, in the face of everything, chooses to keep on growing. “I think small, diversified farm networks can influence local foodsheds. They can build resilience in the food supply chain, reduce carbon emissions, improve local ecosystems and create community. Food brings people together. The small farms that grow that food have a greater capacity and desire to educate consumers and new growers about that food and how it was grown. I truly believe that small-scale farms can change the world. So, what brings me hope? The new generation of young farmers growing food because they see the importance of small-scale, sustainable agriculture.”
Home Gardener in Bucks County, Pennsylvania
is a gifted gardener from Bucks County, Pennsylvania who unknowingly started her growing journey with a few herb seeds from a gift box set on her apartment balcony. “When I started to see tiny sprouts popping up, it was like magic. After seeing the power of water, sunlight, earth, and seeds working together to create life, I was hooked.”
Having since graduated from a balcony to an abundant homegrown plot, Pisa has learned a lot from one season to the next. How does she ensure progress? She takes good notes. “Through the spring and summer, I try and take as many notes and pictures as I can, so I know what did well and what didn’t. I like to keep a log of what vegetables I enjoyed growing and eating the most and those are at the top of my list for the following season. I’ll also note what kind of weather and pest damage I’d encounter and investigate methods for prevention.”
Companion planting is one of her favorite aspects of gardening. It is through studying how plants work together that Pisa realized she could not only maximize her space but also her yields. “I find it so beneficial to interplant flowers with my vegetables and herbs to attract pollinators. Some of my favorite pollinator friendly flowers to add beauty and color in the garden are sunflowers, zinnias, cosmos, and calendula. I also try to strategically plant pest-deterring flowers along with vegetables, like marigold and nasturtium, to keep my garden completely organic and chemical free. I’ve read that companion planting can even improve the taste of certain vegetables, like basil and tomatoes.”
Pisa is connected to plant stewardship through her mother who nurtured plants in their childhood home and through her grandparents who had a rice farm in the Philippines. "My grandfather passed away before I started my personal gardening journey, but I feel a closeness to him whenever I’m out there, hands in the dirt, planting seeds and feeling the sun on my back.” This communion with her family through cultivation nurtures a passion in her to continue to plant seeds and the garden does what it does best and reveals the interconnectedness we all share through soil. "The garden teaches us that we’re all connected and when we take care of the Earth, she will take care of us.”
As high temperatures broke records across the globe this summer, the realities of climate change were deeply felt by commercial growers and home gardeners alike. With so much variability in weather, Pisa has had to adapt to protect her crops. “This season has already brought more heatwaves than in previous years, as well as unexpected overnight frosts. My tips are to check the weather often to be prepared if there are frosts or heatwaves and figure out what kind of protection you can provide to minimize any damage. Mulching the garden beds is a great way to protect the soil. Fabric netting for shade and from frost may be worth looking into. I’ve even used a big umbrella to protect heat-sensitive greens from heatwaves when I didn’t have shade cloth. Also look for heat tolerant or frost tolerant varieties of what you want to grow, as they will adapt better to extreme changes in temps.”
Continue to Part 2 of our 2023 catalog series- the future: let's plan(t) it