Land for Labor & Love: One Idea for Repopulating & Regenerating the Countryside

I am not seeing any solid program that addresses access to land for new farmers. I do see networking and apprentice efforts (such as the one we have at our Earth Wisdom Farm) but I am not seen a comprehensive program that actually provides a viable path to ownership, or resident stewardship. With so much farmland changing hands or about to change hands, and no viable financing available, I'd like to see a program for getting more people on the land, farming it in a way that regenerates the soil and our communities.

Such a program would help advance operations that are utilizing "regenerative farming" practices such as what the new Regenerative Organic Certification system would certify. Such a certification would acknowledge the role microscopic biological life plays in the soil, and with practice, the farmer’s ability to manage it in a way that builds resiliency.

Based on such regenerative protocols, here’s an idea to get new farmers on the land that’s a variation of the old homestead programs of the late 1800s:

• A mid-sized existing conventional farmer is offered the opportunity to set aside 40 acres for a new farmer.

• In exchange, on that 40 acres the government would finance installation of a well, electricity and a two-bedroom modular home for a qualified new farmer. The estimated total cost would be $250,000 per site (the government could strike a deal with the modular home industry to get the homes for wholesale prices).

• A trained, qualified regenerative new farmer would move in and farm the 40 acres for seven years. If s/he is successful, they get title to the 40 acres. If not, it goes back with improvements to the original landowner.

• The original landowner gets a tax break for offering up the 40 acres for use in this program.

• To make the program “revenue neutral,” after five years the successful regenerative farmers would begin paying back some or all of the $250,000 over 20-30 years, so the program would better balance out fiscally for taxpayers.

Here are some of the major features and benefits of this proposed program:

Diversity and Communication: This program puts young regenerative farmers in close contact with experienced conventional farmers. This proximity will help disseminate more widely the regenerative methods to the conventional farmers—particularly cover crops and intensively-managed grazing of livestock—and provides creative opportunities for each farmer to learn from each other and develop methods that are unique to that farmland’s environment.

Integrating Livestock and Building Topsoil: Many of the 40-acre sites could become repositories or home bases for herds of livestock that could service the larger crop farms by intensively grazing their cover crops. Row crop farmers are highly invested in specialized machinery and do not have the time to intensively manage grazing livestock. Meanwhile, grazing livestock accelerate building topsoil and activating soil biology. This complementary collaboration provides another win-win for both types of farming, including the following benefits:

- Stops soil erosion and farm chemical leaching, thus reducing river, lake and ocean pollution.

- Builds topsoil by increasing organic matter, making soils more drought resistant.

- Reduces irrigation and conserves water.

- Sequesters carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

- Reduces use of fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers and pesticides for more profitable farming.

Stimulates and Strengthens Local Communities and Economies: The USDA estimates local food sales from farmers' markets, food hubs, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operations, farm stands and farm-to-school arrangements combined were $11.7 billion in 2014. That is $3 billion more in value than all the wheat grown nationwide! Similarly, growers selling locally create 13 full time jobs per $1 million in revenue earned. Those growers who do not sell locally create only three jobs per $1 million earned. If the Congressional Budget Office got a hold of this proposal, I think it could paint a very interesting economic picture of what could happen to our food security and the impact it would have on the overall economic and lifestyle benefits of having a more healthy balance between rural and urban populations.

Scale of the Proposal

At $250,000 per new farmer, an estimated $100 million would finance 400 new regenerative farmers. Granted, nationwide, that’s not enough new farmers to make much of a difference. An investment of $1 billion would finance 4,000 new regenerative farmers. That’s better, but divided evenly it would be less than 80 new farmers in each of our 50 States.

Optimally, I think $10 billion to finance 40,000 new regenerative farmers is the proper scale for this proposal. By comparison, the current Farm Bill has about $200 billion budgeted for agricultural programs for the five-year life of the current Farm Bill. The proposed $10 billion "Land for Labor Act," as I call it, would be 10 percent of that and likely spread over 10 years to achieve full implementation. And, it can be booked as revenue neutral since this program has a 25-year payback from each successful famer. This payback feature would make it easier for lawmakers to vote for.

Given the comprehensive list of sustainable environmental changes that will result from this program, I believe the cost is minimal compared to other more piecemeal conservation approaches. Agricultural practices have a huge impact on erosion, water and air pollution, and water use. Any efforts to address these concerns will be most effective if they begin with improving our agricultural practices. Uniquely, this proposal does that simply by putting divergent farming methods together on the same farm so their practitioners can learn from each other. The farmers themselves fix the problem.

Some Political Realities

Combined, the Senate and House Agriculture Committees have 66 members (21 Senators/45 Representatives). Interestingly, 48 percent of these combined members are from just nine states. Minnesota has five (two Senators, three Representatives); Florida, Georgia and California have four agriculture committee members each; Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, New York and Texas have three members each.

Of course, each chamber has its unique protocols, and each member has their own special interests to attend to, but combined, this group could have a lot of power in crafting and allocating this proposal. My hope is that we can get it to their attention and consideration.

Land Stewardship Project member RedHeart is developing Earth Wisdom Farm & Training Center—43 acres of silvopasture near Red Wing in southeastern Minnesota. Two young farmers are currently apprenticing as farm managers. They raise intensively grazed pastured meats for local markets. The ideas shared here are the opinions of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Land Stewardship Project.