Land Line: NOLOs, Dirty Music, Ag Secretary Battle, Salatin, Ag Concentration

Nov. 29: An LSP Round-up of News Covering Land, People & Communities

Why Non-operating Landowners Need to be Part of the Conservation Dialogue

(11/22/20) Non-operating landowners, otherwise known as NOLOs, are generally in favor of conservation programs and practices, as are the farmers who operate on their land. But there is often a disconnect between the two in actually getting conservation established, according to Ag Week. Highlights:

  • Around 40% of farmland in the U.S. is rented, and in some parts of the country that number is nearing 80%, according to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. Of those rented lands, 87 million acres are owned by female non-operating landlords.
  • A newly updated report by the American Farmland Trust indicates that NOLOs in the 13 states surveyed are generally supportive of their renters taking conservation-oriented action on their land. They are also willing to make changes to help support conservation adoption like extending the length of leases or asking operators to use certain conservation practices.
  • The findings also challenge some common misconceptions regarding NOLOs, including that they are only focused on their bottom lines and that they do not care about the land. “What we've found is that everybody's kind of on the same page: Farmers want to implement these practices and landowners want to see the land taken care of. There's just a little bit of disconnect, so the conversation was not happening,” said Jean Brokish, Midwest program manager for American Farmland Trust.
  • The report made several recommendations, including creating a greater awareness among NOLOs regarding conservation programs, amplifying their willingness to support their operators with conservation practices, and emphasizing the need for succession planning among aging NOLOs.

In January, LSP is holding a series of "Renting It Out Right" workshops for landowners looking for help developing farm lease arrangements that support their stewardship values.

The Sound of Home Soil

11/25/20) Since 2019, people in Switzerland have been sinking microphones into the ground as part of an interdisciplinary research project called "Sounding Soil," according to Swiss Review. The project is investigating the acoustics of soil ecosystems and hoping to better understand how differences in land use affect these acoustics. This is thought to be the first comprehensive research project of its kind, and scientists hope that "ecoacoustics" could one day become a tool for measuring and assessing biodiversity. Highlights:

  • The conclusion so far is that the greater the variety of living organisms in the soil, the more complex the sound. For example, recordings show organically farmed soils are "acoustically richer" than conventionally managed acres.
  • Mites, fly larvae, woodlice, earthworms, spiders, centipedes, springtails, and beetles are some of the tiny creatures making the sounds that have been recorded. “The more varied the sound, the more diverse the range of creatures. The more intensive the sound, the more active the mesofauna and microfauna,” says biologist Sabine Lerch, who adds that many Swiss soils are in poor condition as a result of development, tillage, and chemical use.

LSP's Bridge to Soil Health Program has numerous resources for farmers seeking to monitor how their practices are impacting their land's soil biome. In addition, in coming weeks LSP is co-sponsoring a series of soil health workshops for vegetable farmers.

Farmers Are Warming Up to the Fight Against Climate Change

(11/20/20) National Public Radio's Dan Charles reports on signs that an increasing number of farmers are not only acknowledging the role agriculture plays in causing climate change, but are pushing for policies that help make it possible for agriculture to be part of the solution. Highlights:

  • "We see more and more farmers acknowledging climate change, actually being affected by it, through droughts or floods or other impacts," says Meredith Niles, a specialist on farming and the environment at the University of Vermont.
  • A new national alliance brings together agricultural and environmental groups that have often butted heads on environmental policy.
  • Several proposals for helping farmers mitigate climate change are gaining traction, including providing incentives for building healthier, carbon-rich soil, absorbing carbon from the air in the process, and expanding forestland.
  • According to some estimates, a reduction in greenhouse emissions from agriculture combined with an increase in forests could get the country 10% to 20% of the way toward net zero emissions in 2050.

Check out LSP's white paper, "Farming to Capture Carbon & Address Climate Change Through Building Soil," on our Carbon Farming web page.

A Fight Over Agriculture Secretary Could Decide the Direction of Hunger Policy

(11/26/20) The New York Times reports on the continuing battle over who will be the next U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. Highlights:

  • Two of President-elect Joe Biden’s farm-state allies are being discussed for the job: Heidi Heitkamp, a former senator from North Dakota, and Tom Vilsack, the former Iowa governor who served as agriculture secretary for President Barack Obama.
  • Also in contention is U.S. Representative Marcia Fudge of Ohio. As a member of Congress, Fudge has been an ally of family-scale farms and regional food systems, and is an advocate for communities historically underserved by the USDA. Rep. Fudge has also pushed for measures to strengthen protections for slaughterhouse workers and is a vocal critic of the Trump administration’s proposal to slash Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

To read the letter signed by LSP and the other organizations in support of naming Rep. Marcia Fudge secretary of agriculture, click here.

Joel Salatin’s Unsustainable Myth

(11/19/20) Tom Philpott writes in Mother Jones about concerns over statements made by sustainable farming celebrity Joel Salatin in relation to racial justice and other issues. Highlights:

  • Chris Newman is the son of a Black mother and a Native American father, who, like Salatin, farms in Virginia utilizing pasture-based regenerative systems. In his blog, Newman has questioned whether the "lone-wolf" approach to farming is sustainable. Newman has argued that new farmers "trade the benefits of agrarian collectivism—living wages, retirement, a sane workload, profitability, survivability, and the capacity to make a game-changing impact in the marketplace," for "complete autonomy in decision-making, the ability to grow what/where/how we want, set our prices as we please, sell wherever we choose, and work ourselves into the ground.” He added: “In short, we’ve done the most modern-American thing possible: bartered away our quality of life for the freedom to be miserable.”
  • Through his popular books, articles, and workshops, Salatin has long promoted "rugged individualism" as the key to success. Although he was not mentioned by name in Newman's blog post, Salatin felt moved to write a blog of his own responding to the young farmer's argument. “While I’m a huge believer in collaboration and building community, I’m equally excited about individual leadership and entrepreneurship,” Slatin wrote. “The two are not mutually exclusive; they are indeed mutually beneficial. But usually community coalesces around individual leadership.” Salatin went on to express concern that he would be labeled "racist" for criticizing Newman and, as Philpott reports, "…deployed a bluntly settler-colonial metaphor, complete with a reference to Native Americans as persecutors of the entitled white pioneer at the vanguard of Westward expansion." In a later e-mail, Salatin wrote: "For the record, we do not believe America is systemically racist."
  • The Mother Jones article goes on to outline how although Salatin's innovative methods for producing and marketing sustainably-raised livestock have had a positive influence on a generation of beginning farmers, an increasing number, particular Indigenous, Black, and other farmers of color, are questioning whether the "going it alone" approach is workable in today's world, particularly when it comes to land access.
  • "To an emerging generation of aspiring growers, Salatin is less a beacon to a sustainable future than an example of Black and Indigenous erasure and nostalgia for a mythologized agrarian past," writes Philpott. As Chris Newman told the writer, “When you see all these collective movements and cooperatives coming out of communities of color, it’s really not surprising, because people of color who want to get on the landscape don’t usually have the opportunity to go it alone.”

See LSP's Racial Justice web page for resources related to creating a food and farming system that treats everyone fairly. There, you can sign-up for Amplyfy!, LSP's e-letter featuring updates, action items, and resources for LSP leaders engaging in racial justice work in their communities.

1% of farms operate 70% of world's farmland

(11/24/20) A new report warns land inequality worldwide is rising with farmland increasingly dominated by a few major companies, reports the Guardian. The study is based on 17 new research papers as well as an analysis of existing data and literature. Highlights:

  • One per cent of the world’s farms operate 70% of crop fields, ranches, and orchards.
  • Since the 1980s, researchers found control over the land has become far more concentrated both directly through ownership and indirectly through contract farming.
  • Taking the rising value of property and the growth of landless populations into account for the first time, the report calculates land inequality is 41% higher than previously believed.

  • Over the past four decades, the biggest shift from small farms to big operations was in the United States and Europe, where ownership is in fewer hands and even individual farmers work under strict contracts for retailers, trading conglomerates, and investment funds. “The concentration of ownership and control results in a greater push for monocultures and more intensive agriculture as investment funds tend to work on 10-year cycles to generate returns,” said Ward Anseeuw, senior technical specialist at the International Land Coalition.
  • To address this, the report recommends greater regulation and oversight of opaque land ownership systems, a shift in tax regimes to support smallholders and better environmental management, and great support for the land-rights of communities.

Check out LSP's Federal Farm Policy page for details on our work to battle corporate concentration in our food and farm system. See LSP's Farm Transition Tools web page for resources on transitioning farmland onto the next generation.


Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.