I’m digging up the relics of another doomed garden. The garlic and onions that slipped through the cracks in our shovels last year, the hollyhocks Marty gave me that would finally set seed this year, that beautiful butter-yellow yarrow I don’t remember planting, Sarah’s grandma’s Irises, the sage we moved to this garden plot from the last one. The developer’s got a sign up now—in a few days or weeks or months they’ll start to build houses, erase our hand-dug furrows with big machines, scrape the topsoil, roll out the sod, put up a for sale sign. The new owners will have no evidence that there was once a beautiful organic garden where their house now sits. I pull the black-eyed susans next to the CSA pickup spot, cluck a nod of pity toward the purple orach sprouts that will never live to flower and reproduce.
If the bulldozers hold off, the dandelions will start blooming soon, followed by the vetch, giving much-needed pollen and nectar to hungry bees emerging from an exceptionally cold winter.
In the 9 years I’ve farmed, I’ve had 7 plots of land, and I’ve lost 4 of them for various urban reasons. Moving shouldn’t be as big a deal anymore (I don’t double dig my new farm plots with a shovel anymore like we did the first three), but every time it makes me melancholy. While my body scours the garden for any jewel that can be saved, I occupy my mind writing a love letter in reverse to the farming community, addressed to those who love local food, farms, and farmers, but aren’t necessarily farmers themselves.
It goes something like this:
I want to believe, like you do, that we’re going to create a secure and sustainable food system. I want it with all my heart. It’s what I get up for in the morning, why my calloused hands far exceed my age, why I continue to dig up new gardens, add manure, make compost, without a contract or health insurance or a living wage. Believe me, I have a lot invested in seeing us get there, too.
Conversations of this sort usually come to the question, what can I do? What can we do? From my particular vantage point on this spring day, the direction my compass points is toward land ownership. Less than 1% of arable farmland is owned by campesinos (the people who actually work the land). I think it’s correct to offer the perspective that the people who steward land would make the most fitting owners of it, or at least the most responsible ones.
Not that individual land ownership offers the best or only option, especially for an urban farm such as the one I run. What excites me more than owning a piece of my own farmland is leveraging the growing interest in creating local food systems to use a collective ownership model that values farmers with security and land with sustainable long-term care. As I leave this garden plot, my sights are set squarely on a secure place to concoct the lengthy love potion of building good soil, planting perennials, creating a legacy that can be passed down through generations of careful stewards to feed generations of grateful, healthy souls.
The union of money and farming has been swirling at the center of my storm for years now, and after countless books, conferences, research, dreaming, and scheming, I think I can offer a healthy, hopeful solution that has been done in other locales and can be replicated as we’re able.
1. Find a piece of land worthy of becoming or continuing to be a farm, with good water and decent soil. I’m looking for something in the city, because that’s been my business model, and because our city needs farms, just like every place needs farms. Don’t overlook city-owned land, abandoned schools, parks and rec land, etc, as these are generally the largest tracts of undeveloped land we have. I particularly like the idea of using city land, because it’s already collectively owned by all of us.
2. If the plot isn’t city-owned already, use the Slow Money principles and models to pool investors’ money to purchase the land. This can be done through the CSA model (investors are members who get paid back with food), the Soil Trust model (investors pool money philanthropically), the crowdfunding model (ala kickstarter), community investment mutual funds, grants, loans, or any combination of those. With city land, this step becomes unnecessary, because we already own the land. These models could still be employed to purchase infrastructure.
3. Work with the Land Trust of the Treasure Valley, or the city, to get the land put into a trust with the stipulation that it will always be farmland. This alleviates the conundrum virtually every farm owner across the country has of whether to sell the land to developers at artificially high prices. Once the land is protected in a trust, it remains valuable as ag land, not the possibility of ticky tacky strip malls and subdivisions, and we are collectively the better for it. Rooted in the soil-based economics of what can be sustainably produced on it year after year, with the revenue from that production being able to comfortably cover the mortgage on the land, we elegantly link land and economy, thus bringing money down to earth, in Slow Money’s words. This holds potential for all sorts of exciting economic reform!
4. Show the farmer or farmers they are valued by granting them a lengthening lease on the land, starting at 1 or 2 years, then renewing for 5 years, then 20, so the farmers can have the security to build something that will sustain them into retirement and that can continue after they’re gone, in turn sustaining the community for the long haul.
This is a model I would be honored to participate in, and I’m certain other farmers would feel the same. It serves the deepest aspirations of my soul—a collective bettering of our beloved city by including more fresh, local food in it for the long term, creating an economy centered around sustainable food production, and truly valuing the farmers who devote their lives and livelihoods to doing this work. This model allows us to leverage the modest resources of a large crop of people, which in turn gives a large crop of people a genuine stake in the farm’s success, and therefore, in their own health and the health of their community.