With 400 million acres of land in the United States expected to change hands over the next two decades, the time for transformation in land ownership is now, says Ian McSweeney. Ian is the director of Agrarian Trust, which supports small farmers and their communities through the creation of Agrarian Commons, a communal land-ownership model with a focus on sustainable agriculture. Here, he and Ashoka’s Lisbet Portman discuss the urgent need for an alternative to industrial farming, the limits of conservation, and what a long-term view of environmental stewardship might look like.
Lisbet Portman: As a young person, how did you think about the land around you?
Ian McSweeney: I was lucky enough to grow up on a small farm, surrounded by several thousand acres of mostly untouched land. When I was very young, an industrial dairy farm bought up the majority of that pristine land and went about dredging wetlands, damming waterways and completely destroying the natural ecosystem. As I got older, the context of the damage became clear. The town tried to stop them. Then the state tried to stop them. Eventually the Supreme Court ruled in the lands’ favor, amending the Clean Water Act to add protections. So, seeing land that I connected with as a young kid degraded, but ultimately protected through legal action, had a huge impact on me.
Portman: So you had an early glimpse of agriculture as a destructive force. Did you also see agriculture as a force for good?
McSweeney: I grew up eating from my parents’ homestead backyard garden; their social circles were all using small-scale food production to restore land ecosystems. Later on, I connected with one of the first community-supported agriculture farms. So I also saw regenerative agriculture in practice.
Portman: How would you describe regenerative agriculture to a three-year-old?
McSweeney: Regenerative agriculture means giving more to the earth than you’re taking. And if you’re trying to grow food to eat, you’re taking a lot of nutrients from the earth. So you have to work even harder to restore those nutrients.
Portman: What are some of the overarching concepts of the human relationship to land that have shaped policy in the U.S.?
McSweeney: Traditional land conservation is based on that belief that protecting nature means keeping people out of it. I always found that shortsighted, because my exposure to nature as a kid was so hands-on. Then I began to learn more about the displacement of people that is necessary to create these spaces. The elitism behind them, the fact that they are primarily for some and not for most, really stuck out. Colonial capitalism globally takes a similar approach: it separates people and land in service of a desired outcome for the few.
Portman: Could you talk to us about the Agrarian Commons model? How is it distinct from traditional land conservation practices in this country?
McSweeney: Conservation land trusts have a long history of success around maintaining a culture of respect for the land and the volunteering of time, energy, and funds. So for us at the Agrarian Trust, it’s about maintaining and expanding that culture while moving in the new direction of localized autonomy: less separation and regulation, greater number of perspectives. Also, farms centering people who have been marginalized from access to land, nutritious food, and good health are prioritized in our approach.
Portman: The Agrarian Trust currently has 415 acres in regenerative stewardship, having co-created 14 Agrarian Commons in Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Montana, and more (see map here). How are they organized?
McSweeney: Each one of the commons is different. Some are more production-focused, while others are being used for environmental education and training. But the main characteristic of a successful Agrarian Common is that it’s locally led — the local leaders and farmers and their families benefit. They are bringing about land security, tenure and equity for their own communities. They have a deep understanding of the geographic area.
In addition, because they know the existing landowners, they are able to help these landowners transition out. Sometimes that means a farm is donated, and sometimes that means fundraising to meet the seller’s terms. Either way, it takes collaboration between the landowner and the Commons. Using the land trust structure to negotiate agreements, raise money, acquire land, and transition it into the structure.
Portman: Why is this approach so important now? What are some of the drivers?
McSweeney: The average age of farmland-owners in the US is over 64, so most are looking to sell. But the cost of land has increased for decades, while farm income has steadily decreased. It’s just unaffordable for small farmers to buy that land. So that’s a really big crisis point. 37 mid-size farms are closing per day, according to USDA. This exacerbates the fact that we are not providing enough nutrient-rich food to people. We need a new, non-extractive way of agriculture. And it’s not even a new way. Much of the world does practice small-scale regenerative agriculture, yet that’s not the narrative we hear. We hear that we can’t feed the world, so we need to bioengineer products and supersize industrial agriculture.
Portman: What is your sense of the country’s readiness for this idea?
McSweeney: The pandemic and climate collapse that we’re faced with are terrifying events and yet they’re raising awareness. Now climate collapse is a normal part of the news cycle. Ten years ago, those words couldn’t even be said on the news without skepticism.
At the same time, all of the solutions we’re envisioning – whether they relate to climate collapse or feeding a broader population – require some long-term investment and land security. Currently, lots of capital is flowing into regenerative agriculture practices, but it’s doing so in a very un-secure way. We know all this land is in transition. We know some of these regenerative practices need at least a decade to achieve results, but we don’t have any guarantees that these practices will be able to continue. It’s risky to dump so much money into the land with such uncertainty.
Portman: You’re right, this demands patience — we’ll need to cultivate new mindsets and long-range policies. On that point, could you talk about the 99-year lease and how that’s affecting these Commons?
McSweeney: The 99-year lease, the longest a lease can be, is a construct of state and federal law. It sets a timeframe for land tenure that is meant to provide long-term, multi-generation security to land and all the rights that are needed to practice agriculture without permanent land ownership. But land is permanent and we need to have a longer-term vision. As many wiser than we would say, we need to have a seven generation vision for land. We may be temporary, but our work doesn’t have to be.
Ian McSweeney is an Ashoka Fellow. You can read more about Ian and his team’s approach and impact here.