One of the most important and often overlooked factors in agriculture and farm policy is the issue of land tenure. At its core, agriculture is a land-based enterprise and necessarily revolves around the use of land. Although the leasing of agricultural land has become more common in recent years, land rights are still central to any agricultural property issue. As Professor Neil Hamilton of Drake University Law School’s Food Law program said in a recent lecture, one can’t think about agricultural issues without dealing with land tenure.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, land tenure is the relationship between individuals, social groups, and land (http://www.fao.org/nr/tenure/en/). It is a set of boundaries created to protect land, encourage its proper use, and define property rights. It is intricately connected to a variety of social and political issues, largely because it is often strongly related to personal interests. Land tenure systems exist all around the world, with some countries utilizing customary and/or unwritten land tenure codes in remote rural contexts. In general, they fall under three general categories: 1) the use of land rights (to grow crops, etc), 2) the control of land rights (to make decisions, etc), and 3) the transferal of land rights (through a sale or lease arrangement). Land tenure protects a wide range of rights. These rights include the right to exclude others from one’s property, the right to decide how to use one’s land for personal or economic purposes, and many others. It also contains a set of duties that must be adhered to by the landowner. For instance, the landowner has a duty to not use the land in a way that will harm other individuals.
Recent trends in U.S. agricultural and environmental land management show a steady overall increase in farmland leases, with pockets of the country (Iowa and others) showing a slight increase in land ownership (http://lib.dr.iastate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1504&context=leopold_grantreports). Farm tenant workers are also becoming more common, along with share-cropping agreements. However, the most significant change in farmland management in recent years is the constant consolidation of ownership into fewer and fewer hands. Farmland has been steadily funneled into the hands of larger farms and fewer wealthy individuals who are turning agri-culture into agri-business. The 1950’s subsidy system that is unfortunately still in place in the U.S. gives the largest agribusinesses exorbitant amounts of money in the name of risk management, and the national and international production demands on the farmers incentivize the over-production of a select few crops. In short, the current system of land ownership and land use in the United States provides incentives for the overuse of farmland, the depletion of nutrients, the intensification of mono-cropping, the exacerbation of erosion, and the satisfaction of the consumer economy. The things it doesn’t incentivize – sustainable land use practices, diversification of crops, soil care, equitable treatment for small and large farms alike, etc – aren’t important to the powerful agribusiness lobbyists in Washington and are therefore unlikely to happen.
Unfortunately, the difficulties associated with our land tenure system pervade all levels of society. Even at the local level – yes, even in New England’s organic agriculture circles – land tenure issues can create significant impediments for sustainable land use. For instance, young farmers looking to get involved in new and emerging forms of agriculture (aquaculture, organics, pasture-raised meats, etc) do not have the financial capital necessary to buy land or the social capital and relationships necessary to inherit land. Most of them aren’t strongly connected to farming circles and most of them will either rent or lease the land they hope to use. However, in order to keep their leases, most young farmers have to display a certain level of productivity on the land and are therefore pushed to do whatever they can to meet those expectations. In other cases, when a farmer knows that (s)he only has one or two years with which to lease and use a certain parcel of land, incentives for preserving the long-term health of the soil will be overshadowed by the immediacy of the need for production. Even organic agriculture can fall prey to the inadequacies of our land ownership systems.
My personal recommendation for land tenure reform in the United States is that there be a much stronger focus on private property. Only when one’s property rights are secure and stable can one can begin to invest in the long-term health of their land. As Jonathan Adler points out in his article for the Duke Journal of Food Policy (see the Sources page for full title), this will require the de-centralization of government in regards to land and environmental matters. With a localized approach that seeks to secure long-term property rights, the path to environmental reform will be significantly eased.
Land tenure and land use practices need reform, and with it they require a healthy conception of our relationship to the land. Aldo Leopold, in his seminal book Sand County Almanac, develops his concept of a “land ethic” by describing life on his farm in northern Wisconsin. He compared a land ethic to the ethics of right and wrong in a human community, in which ethical behavior is possible because there is intimate knowledge of the other members of the community. A land ethic simply includes land and the natural world in that community and asks for it to be known and respected in the same way. Leopold asks us to realize that we have a relationship with the land and that caring for it is, by extension, caring for our fellow human beings. This relationship requires intimate connection to and experience in the natural world, for “we can only be ethical in relation to something we can see, understand, feel, love, or otherwise have faith in.”
If our perspective on land was akin to the vision that Leopold casts, we might not be on the road to resource depletion that we are on. Land tenure reform is, I believe, a unique and largely unrecognized way to incentivize better, more environmentally-sound land use practices that have as their frame of reference not only the short-term utilization but also the long-term preservation of the land. Reform of this kind would unfortunately be inextricably tied to the current agricultural subsidy debacle, so it would have to be a widespread legislative effort that starts at the local and state levels. I would propose a land tenure system that, for instance, would maximize tax incentives for investing in emerging agricultural product markets and diversifying the use of their land. This could be on the front end of the process (in the buying and titling process) or the back end (in the estate planning and succession process). Priority should be given to the newer and younger farmers who are struggling to break into the sector rather than the massive agribusinesses that already control most of the market. Lease governance terms should be rearranged for small farms to benefit from long-term commitments to their land. Changes of this type will require a shift in our nation’s mindset from a 10-year outlook to a 50-year outlook and from a top-heavy set of industrial incentives to an accessible set of healthy incentives for the next generation’s use of their land. More than anything, they will require that we begin to see land through Aldo Leopold’s eyes – as an active, alive, and vital part of our community.