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.

About Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson is the former editor of The Maine Wire and currently the executive producer of the Kirk Minihane Show. Follow him on Twitter @BigSteve207.