Traditional farm ownership threatened by progressive model of “land tenure”


By Diana George Chapin

Controlling land, as well as the full suite of rights for it and the full financial value of it, has been paramount to free-enterprise, private-ownership farming in Maine for centuries. But traditional models of farmland ownership are being threatened by alternative agreements of “land tenure” for new and entry-level farmers who do not own land.

In such “land tenure” agreements, tenant farmers may be building equity in a farm operation they don’t completely own.

Building equity in land is a major concern seasoned famers have for new and entry-level tenant farmers, especially as progressive attitudes develop toward farmland use in Maine. Seasoned farmers know well the importance of being able to draw from the equity earned through private ownership to get through unforeseen financial hardship, to fund college for the kids, to tap the financial reserves locked in the timber of a woodlot for retirement or to sell a parcel to pay for a medical crisis.

“Ownership is not as important as it once was, and people are opening themselves up to alternative models of land tenure,” said Andrew Marshall, who has been working for nine years as educational programs director for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s (MOFGA).

Marshall oversees all of the organization’s new farmer development initiatives, including the Apprenticeship and Journeyperson Programs and the Farm Training Project, as well as educational workshops and events for farmers and gardeners across the state.

In a May 1 interview on Maine Public Radio’s “Maine Calling,” which focused on current issues in family farming, Marshall spoke about how entry-level farmers can access land. “There are some really neat, robust models of land tenure that are gaining ascendancy in Maine and around the northeast in general,” he said. “There’s a bit of a changing of the tide in terms of sort of a philosophical approach to that.”

The term “land tenure” dates to the feudal land system in Medieval Europe, where nobility controlled access to land. Tenant farmers could earn certain rights to use the land in return for military service or maintenance of or agricultural use of the land.

The monarch or nobility doled out tenancies to the land for a period and controlled future conveyance of the land at the end of the term.

“Land tenure” describes a relationship between a tenant and a lord, not a tenant and the land.

Some land trusts—organized under Maine law as corporate, non-profit organizations—lease land to and hold land-tenure agreements with tenant farmers, particularly young and entry-level farmers.

“I’m not an expert in land conservation or tenure models,” Marshall said in a June interview. “The way that I interface with them is basically trying to solve problems for the beginning farmers that I work with. One of the major problems that new and beginning farmers face is access to land. And so, you know, the straight ownership model—kind of fee-simple ownership—is less common and less of a viable option for a lot of folks who are just coming into farming. Land is more expensive than it has been, and there are other competing uses for that land besides agriculture which drive up the price of that land.”

With the option of purchasing land diminished for a lot of people, Marshall said land trusts need to be creative about how to gain access to long-term land tenure.

“Land tenure to me means secure access and a bundle of rights to use that land and also to build equity in that land and the business one develops from that land,” he said. “That’s my own kind of personal definition, and there’s probably some holes in it. But for me, that’s what it means: being able to gain the benefit of improving a piece of land, stewarding a piece of land, whether or not that involves ownership. It’s broader than just straight ownership. It’s basically non-ownership.”

Then what are some of the ways people can build equity in land without owning it?

“Well, that’s absolutely an enormous concern of ours,” said Marshall, who worked on King Hill Farm in Penobscot and Horsepower Farm on the Blue Hill peninsula, as well as several farms in California while in graduate school.

“Obviously, the best way to build equity in land is ownership. But if that’s not an option, what are some of the other options?” he said. “There are models like selling the farm buildings and infrastructure to the farmer and placing some constraints on those that they have to be used for agriculture, but that you’re able to sell those assets when you’re cashing out.”

Models for tenants building equity in a farm operation they don’t completely own appear to be murky.

“My approach is you try to do what you can to make everybody happy,” said Marshall, who grew up in New Jersey and earned degrees in environmental science, agro-ecology and rural sociology from Bowdoin College and the University of California, Santa Cruz.

“There’s certainly a role for land conservation in the northeast,” he said. “Clearly, it serves a purpose. There are benefits to a lot of people for conserved land. There are also many challenges that go along with it: taking that land out of tax rolls or diminishing the taxes that a municipality can raise from that. And removing in perpetuity a bundle of rights, that’s a big step, for sure, and it should not be done without serious consideration.”

“I guess I would say I approach it with ambivalence, and by ambivalence I mean I have feelings on both sides of the issue,” Marshall said. “I have seen land trusts do really good things for beginning farmers, and I’ve also seen land trusts do some pretty stupid and dangerous things.

“And so it really depends,” he said. “I don’t really have a hard opinion on land trusts in general. I think the devil is in the details. I think we all really need to be very careful when we’re talking about removing a bundle of rights in perpetuity or surrendering those rights or involving a third party in the exercising of certain rights. It’s all complicated.

“We’re at a time in Maine where certain land trusts are becoming quite powerful and a very strong presence on the landscape, and that, I think, is necessarily going to ruffle some feathers and really miff some landowners,” Marshall said. “That’s definitely a challenge for the land trusts to try to mend those fences and really figure out a way that they are perceived not to be usurping the land.”

But Marshall says that creative solutions are needed to make sure beginning farmers have access to land. “It’s a tension, for sure,” he said. “The purpose of land conservation is to spread out the benefits and risks of land over many generations. That’s really the way I perceive it.

“If the highest and best use of a piece of land over the very long term is not necessarily for development, then that needs to be recognized in some way,” Marshall said. “There needs to be a way of making sure that the current owners or stewards of that land aren’t enriching themselves at the expense of future generations.”

This is part of an ongoing series about Maine Land Trusts – Read all articles here.

Diana George Chapin is a freelance writer and a fourth-generation family farmer from Montville, Maine.


  1. A better title for this article might have been: New Business Alternatives Provide Hope for Struggling Farmers in Maine.

    The equity that historical Maine farmers have been able to draw from the land they own typically came from the value of an asset they inherited at no cost.

    Farming is a hard life and typically does not produce a revenue stream attractive to or even possible for an entry-level purchaser. This is why aging Maine farmers find offers from land trusts attractive.

    It’s not that they are brow-beaten into selling, it’s because they cannot sustain the life-business they once enjoyed. They find themselves unable to continue their struggle. They have no children willing to carry the family business into the next generation and they care so deeply about the character and purpose their property has established in their lives that they are pleased to see their model of its productive vitality carried on. In a sense, they are getting more for their property than it is worth by selling to a land trust because there is nobody else willing to pay them more and/or to also assure them the land they treasure will be viewed with the same reverence.

    Does the development of this new model or ownership represent something more “threatening” than the sweeping accumulation of small, family owned farms by large private agro-corporations, or changing the nature of the land’s use by a sale to residential or commercial developers?

    Tenant farming is a particularly attractive concept because, in this new dynamic, the landlords isn’t motivated by the profit it requires to maintain the landlord-tenant relationship. It’s concern is married with the aspirations of the tenant: stewardship of the land itself.

    No, this isn’t a progressive conspiracy. It’s an example of of the creativity that free markets are capable of when they work best.

  2. If I could, I’d time-travel you right back to 16th Century England, so you could personally enjoy the benefits of tenant farming.

    Clearly, you do not belong in the Democratic Republic that our Constitution describes and empowers. For all your academic blustering, you fail to appreciate the difference between private ownership and simple power- and land-grabbing by private or corporate entities.

    Might I respectfully recommend the documentary “Mugabe and the White African” – available on dvd? Seems to me that is mostly where your thinking ultimately takes us, albeit (for the time being) minus  ethnic cleansing.

  3. Correction: I meant to say “simple power- and land grabbing by government or corporate entities.”

  4. That’s quite an observation. Now, please explain how your notion of the “Democratic Republic our Constitution describes and empowers” is supposed to work? Should government intercede to subsidize land prices for farmers who can’t continue their business and can’t get paid what they want from a willing buyer? Should buyers be compelled to pay a premium for sustaining the vision a seller has for his land because it’s been in his family for years and he hates the thought of seeing it destroyed?

    What exactly is your point?

    “Free Markets Nevermore?”

  5. Land trusts drive up land costs and taxes for private farmers by competing with them for land and using their tax exempt status to shift tax burden.  These heavily out of state financed groups are contributing to Maine farmers struggling to acquire land and then offer to solve it with an arrangement that is heavily stacked in the trust’s favor.  The tenant farmer will invest sweat equity in the land until he hits a cash flow problem and either gets booted or, more likely, goes into debt to the landholder.  

    I don’t regard this as a free market transaction because the land trusts don’t pay tax and are competing on an uneven playing field.

  6. I’ll take your questions in order, one by one. Pardon my French.

    1. Free markets and minimal government interference, as per the limited government the Constitution (you might familiarize yourself with this important document) intends, current supremes notwithstanding.
    2. Non.
    3. Non.
    4. See above and below.
    5. A propos de “nevermore,” Quotharaven sez that would be your (albeit muddled) message.

    To support my view, I refer you to the articulate Mr SocrateseLocke, who makes a cogent argument for my admittedly bellicose stance.

    At the risk of being accused of hopping right over the edge, I’d point out that President Robert Mugabe started out in the 1960s with the righteous-sounding “Movement for Democratic Change” which was represented by the “National Democratic Party” which ultimately morphed into ZANU – “Zimbabwe African National Union.” Can’t happen here? Maybe not, without the maturing of certain elements now only festering on the American political scene, but agrarian reform is often how it all begins in totalitarian governments around the world. Just a heads up to the thoughtful.

  7. Please take the second e out of “SocratesLocke”…sometimes I get so passionate I just need a proofreader.

  8. Mr Marshall states,  “There needs to be a way of making sure that the current owners or stewards of that land aren’t enriching themselves at the expense of future generations.” It appears the author agrees with this concept.

    Since when is the agreed goal to stop/prevent people from enriching themselves? Or more to the point, only allow it if it is not at the expense of future generations. How do you know? Who determines?

    How is it possible for anyone to know with certainty that an action today will be at the expense of future generations — ALL of them for all generations to come?

    If I had a significant medical expense I very likely would use a current land asset to raise cash (enriching myself) and it could very well be a better deal for me than my kids (at the expense of future generations).

    The choice of enriching self vs future generations is an individual choice as part of a free market and should not be eroded further by yet another another layer of regulation/control applied by people who have the conviction of their beliefs regarding what is good, right, and true. 

  9. I’ve been watching the growth of Crystal Spring Farm, a child of the Bath/Brunswick land trust, a growing non-profit.

    Let me say, I don’t know the finances of it; but observing its growth has been startling when compared with the family farms rotting away around Maine.

    They have many acres of vegetables and even grain

    They have a large flock of sheep and some turkeys and chickens.

    They hold a very well attended farmer’s market nearby every Sat.

    They have organized a pre-buying program based on shares, i.e. prepay for a percentage of the produce and very good deal for families. 

    In short they have prospered and expand; yet how much does the non-profit status factor into this prosperity?

    Nor do we know how the land tenants fit into this model……are they restricted in so far as what they produce; do they have access to the market place; do they get to share seeds, expertise, machinery, and labor–lots of young volunteers earning community service credits today. 

    There is a new agriculture emerging, with large corporate owned farms, i..e herds of over 1,000 cows; at the top; family farms in the middle, and these fast growing land trust ‘entities at the bottom and moving into the middle. 

  10. Very interesting; definitely food for thought. I would be very interested in the answers to the questions you ask. Do you mind if I put a ? at the end of yours, quoted below?

    “yet how much does the non-profit status factor into this prosperity?
    Nor do we know how the land tenants fit into this model……are they restricted in so far as what they produce; do they have access to the market place; do they get to share seeds, expertise, machinery, and labor-?”

    We have similar sounding, perhaps smaller scale, organic farms in Dutchess Cty, NY, where I live, but I do not know the financial details and wonder about the same things you’ve brought up. The “share” system at these farms is, however, hardly at bargain prices, and they cater to the wealthier local population, so far as I can tell.

    I feel somewhat uncomfortable when farms specified as “not for profit” prosper, even when their prices are quite high, while family farms fail. There is something wrong with that picture, but I cannot articulate exactly why, without knowing the relevance of financial factors you bring up. Thanks for the astute comment. I used to live in Bath.

  11. They are saying “to hell with the free market, let’s manipulate the industry and we can gain control over farming once and for all” or “what would  Castro do?”

     The goverment buys these “forever farms” at market value and sell them, with the condition it stays a farm forever, for about half what the goverment paids for it out of your tax dollars.

    That my friend is not even close to free market

  12.  So when a Land Trust (a private enterprise, NOT the “government”) is the only bidder to make an offer to the owners of a farm in Maine who want to sell, your answer to the owner is what?

    Please, let’s be clear about this.

  13.  I have a dear friend who owns more than 700 acres of farmland left to him by this father near Utica, NY (an area in many ways similar to Maine). He struggles as an absentee owner to preserve it as a farm. He is committed  not to let it be sub-divided nor used for an industrial purpose.

    He has no interest in farming. He has abiding respect for the land and the use for which it has been known for generations.

    He has had not a single offer for it in 5 years.

    If a land trust were to make him an offer, what would you advise?

  14. I’ve been hoping that someone from Maine Wire would weigh in on this conversation.

    I mean, you guys published this story. You must have an opinion.

    So come on … be transparent. What’s you take on it?

    Diana? How about you?

  15. W-H-A-T?!?! You have to be kidding me, this is so very, UNAmerican!

    “If the highest and best use of a piece of land over the very long term is not necessarily for development, then that needs to be recognized in some way,” Marshall said. “There needs to be a way of making sure that the current owners or stewards of that land aren’t enriching themselves at the expense of future generations.”

  16. Golly, that’s sorta what I thought, but Cris Edward Johnson, whose boastful “teacher, lawyer, writer” tag is nothing if not impressive, has dismissed me: “I rest my case,” sez he. What case is that? Does he think I’m a moron? Or is he simply unable to argue at a rational level the legitimate differences of opinion and basic elements of faith one might have with another vis a vis property ownership under the Constitution?

    By “elements of faith” I mean this: I revere the Constitution and respect the rights of others to practice, quietly and privately, most religions, but I am repelled by any effort on the parts of crackpots, government or others to set aside the Constitution in order to scam and control people, and it seems to me entirely possible that these “land trusts” are promoted by slavish zealots who love the earth in a religious, blind passion, and by others who simply use the afore-mentioned individuals as they seek power or who have an ultimate financial objective I don’t support. Seems to me the whole issue bears close scrutiny that results in a clarification of both agenda and finances. The proponents of Land Trusts and “forever farms” appear to me to set aside the Constitution with regard to what’s left of property rights. But, to be sure, one would need financial details – of the Bath/Brunswick trust, for example.

    Cris “teacher, lawyer. writer”  Edward Johnson appears to embrace a “new age” – ala 1960 – religion that purports that mother earth is god. Me? I look closely at what she teaches, but beyond that, I’m an atheist; I find myself quite alarmed that the Federal Government owns 44% of the land in the USA, and I’m just not ready to cede more of my cash, individual rights – or the sovereignty of my beloved country – over to a totalitarian government or a well-organized bunch of Federally- or State-supported religious kooks without kicking and screaming, even though I’m opposed by many an elitist “teacher, lawyer, writer” typa dude who feels superior to the rest of us. Jump back, Loretta!

    You’ll have to excuse me now; I’m just on the verge of lapsing into French again.

  17. You libs have worked very hard to tax and regulate farming, fishing, logging and paper making out of existence.  If a land trust, a government coddled abomination of out of state control, is the only bidder for a property it’s because the land trust people have created that situation.

  18. Making more money than seems possible, local individuals going broke,  stinks of Soros, Agenda 21, and people who are willing to sell their Liberty for the sake of the security of a government handout ( subsidy)  If we don’t do something soon to reverse this train we will end up where we are headed.


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