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Young farmers prefer collective over individual ownership

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U.N. report emphasizes “the importance of land redistribution for the realization of the right to food.”

By Diana George Chapin 

The land conservation community in Maine often cites affordable access to land as one of the main barriers faced by young people who wish to pursue commercial farming. But some young farmers are looking to “community land trust” models as a means of accessing land, then removing it in perpetuity from private ownership and, in turn, private enterprise.

The Maine Landless Farmers Alliance (MLFA) states: “In order to preserve farmland and rural heritage, we must resist the wave of rural gentrification that threatens our local economies and food security.” (See http://landlessfarmersalliance.wordpress.com)

The MLFA site is linked to Tinderbox Farm in the Waldo County town of East Thorndike. In mid-July Matthew Sidar answered the phone there.

Sidar, 24, grew up in Yarmouth and for a time attended Reid College in Portland, Oregon. Uninspired by the experience, he travelled to Latin American “on a lark” with a friend. He later studied agriculture at the University of Alaska and worked on a farm in that state.

After a year-and-a-half in Alaska, Sidar flew to Seattle and made his way back to Maine on his bicycle.

“When I first arrived, I showed up at the Earth First Rendezvous, which just happened to be right on my route,” said Sidar. “I met a bunch of good folks there, and got lined up with a job at an apple orchard, which is where I met Sonia, which is how I ended up here.”

Sidar said Sonai Acevedo handles the MLFA website, but she was presently unavailable by phone and has moved on from Tinderbox Farm.

In an interview Acevedo held with Food for Maine’s Future, published in that organization’s Winter 2010 “Saving Seeds” newsletter she discussed being a “landless farmer.” (See http://savingseeds.files.wordpress.com/2009/11/saving-seeds-fall09_winter10.pdf)

“I’m not willing to work a corporate job off of the land to raise the capital I need to get back on the land,” Acevedo said. “I’m not interested in moving from the Midcoast to a cheaper county at this time. The reason that I have been able to do the homesteading thing here in Midcoast Maine is because there’s a huge population of older back-to-the-landers who often have free or cheap old cabins that they are willing to rent or trade for and are down with radicals growing vegetables in their back yards. I also homeschool my children, and the high percentage of liberals in this area means that there are a lot of (non-Christian) homeschoolers for me and my daughters to get support from.”

Although Acevedo was the contact for the MLFA website, Sidar could not ascertain whether she authored all the content, which says, “The Maine Landless Farmer’s Alliance seeks to meet the need of [a] new generation of farmers by connecting them to the land they need through grassroots organizing that places their voices at the center of this struggle for land and access to locally grown food.”

According to the website, the goals of the landless farmers’ alliance include “constructing a database of abandoned farmlands, alternative forms of land tenure, work trade land options, and sympathetic land owners who are dedicated to keeping their lands undeveloped and resisting rural gentrification.”

Also, the alliance seeks to “practice economic justice and class solidarity in matching landless farmers with farming opportunities, and assist sympathetic landowners in land transfer agreements that will address both their economic needs and new farmers’ right to landaccess.”

The MLFA site links to the United Nations’ General Assembly session on the “Right to Food,” which states “while security of tenure is indeed crucial, individual titling and the creation of a market for land rights may not be the most appropriate means to achieve it. Drawing on the lessons learned from decades of agrarian reform, the report emphasizes the importance of land redistribution for the realization of the right to food.” (See www.srfood.org/images/stories/pdf/officialreports/20101021_access-to-land-report_en.pdf)

According to the MLFA site the “community land trust” model is the mechanism of choice for “creating alternatives to capitalism through cooperative, collective and autonomous models of farming,” like those described by the UN’s food production agenda.

The MLFA site reports, “A community land trust (CLT) is an organization that fights the private market for land, and the negative effects thereof. It does not make logical or ethical sense for it to be allocated based on wealth. A community land trust … is structured as a non-profit … It defines a specific geographic region as the location of the community, and then seeks to acquire through purchase and donation as much land as possible within that community, and hold it in perpetuity, thereby permanently removing it from the free market.”

Sidar said Tinderbox Farm is currently organized as a collective, but not yet as a CLT, with four members leasing land from an “absentee” landowner.

“Right now there’s four of us who are living in the house here, on a piece of land that consists of 30 acres of fields and another 130 or so of forests,” Sidar said. “It’s owned by private individuals, our landlords, whom we rent the land from.

“As far as our day-to-day life here, we live collectively,” he said. “We meet every week and we make decisions based on a consensus process, where we talk issues through and only take action when everyone agrees that it’s the right thing to do.

“There is sort of the looming issue of how long we might be able to stay here,” Sidar said. “Even though the landlords seem totally amenable to us being here indefinitely, there’s no guarantee of that. If someone else comes along, or if a buyer comes along, it could be sold out from under us. That’s a little concerning, but I’m not worried about it at the moment.”

He said he is hoping for a longer-term lease or having the land turned over to a community land trust. “I think that it would suit us particularly well, in that it wouldn’t be any one particular individual owning the land,” he said. “The nature of this place—people have been coming and going—and with the collective process that we use for decision-making, no one person has final say over anything. So having one person be the owner of the land would run contradictory to the way we currently operate.”

Where does Sidar see himself in five, 10 or 20 years?

“Ideally, I’d like to be here,” said Sidar. “Even after just two years of being here, the amount of work that’s gone into this place and the improvement in the land and the buildings and the community here is really heartening to see. I can only imagine in five years, 10 years, however long, things will be even better here and I’ll be more invested in it.”

Is Sidar concerned that within this non-ownership model, he’s investing in an enterprise in which he is building no equity and no real financial security to draw from in future times of need?

“Perhaps if I really thought, if I kind of dwelled on it,” he said.  “Right now I’m not worrying about that aspect of it, but I can see the concern.”

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.

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