USA: This Land is Our Land?

Published on Civil Eats, by Bob St Peter and Raj Patel, October 18, 2013.

Imagine a country where ideologues bent on land reform turn agriculture into the plaything of the world’s richest investors, and poor local farmers are locked out of millions of acres prime agricultural land. Then stop imagining some African country run by a despot and his friends and start picturing the United States. Rural America is on the cusp of one of the greatest transfers of land in its history and no one’s talking about it.  

At its worst, land reform lets plutocrats kick poor people off their ancestral land. But land reform is not only the tool of dictators. At its best, sensible policies about how land is used, transferred, and owned can make it possible for young people to farm with dignity, a living wage, and a future. It can help poor people stop being poor. It can let young farmers who want to farm break through the barriers to entry. It can provide a secure retirement for America’s older farmers. It can happen and should happen in countries as democratic and as rich as the United States.

In fact, radical reform has been discussed in the U.S. and recently. But not in the current agricultural policy centerpiece: The Farm Bill. If you knew nothing about it, you might think that the Farm Bill would be a sensible place for talking about farms and bills. But big, structural problems like land use, transfer, ownership, and preservation are too big a threat to the status quo to mention–so no one risks talking about them.

Certainly, land reform is a ticklish subject. In its cartoon version, land reform is what communists do after a revolution. Few in Congress want to be associated with it. That’s a shame, because historical American-facilitated land reforms have often been very successful. The prosperity of Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan owe much to the reforms imposed on them by the U.S. after WWII in order to preempt the spread of communism.

Land reform isn’t of mere historical interest–it remains important within America. Just as in the Global South, poor people in the U.S. still want and try to make a living off the land. While some farmers’ children want to head to the cities, many others are being kicked off the farm. No matter how enthusiastic and able they are, they can’t afford to stay, the farm can’t feed another mouth.

To the ranks of these unwilling urbanites, add a generation of young city-dwellers raring to get their hands dirty. The food movement has rekindled young Americans’ romance with agriculture. Thousands graduate from dozens of new food and sustainable agriculture programs. They’re hardly naïve about the work involved in living off the land. Yet their ambition will be fruitless, because unless they come from families of good fortune, they won’t be able to afford the land, they will be priced out of the market by institutional investors and large-scale farm operations.

Part of the drive behind America’s land transfer is very easy to talk about. American farmers are getting older; they average 58 years old. Their nest egg is their land and they’re increasingly worried about health care and retirement income. So over the next 20 years, 400 million acres of farm land will crumble through the hands of families that historically farmed, scooped up by the highest bidders. Those bidders are likely to be far richer than the young farmers who would like a chance at their own land stake. And they’re likely to be absentee owners.

The American way of land has been this: conquest, enclosure, inheritance, foreclosure, and sale to the highest bidder. And that trend is likely only to get worse. For example, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, at the bleeding edge of free-market thinking, has proposed that any corporation anywhere in the world be able to buy as much farm land in his state as it wants. At the moment, there are at least a few restrictions on the kinds of international investors allowed to dabble in Wisconsin farmland, with a 640-acre limit on purchases for firms designated foreign … //

… Ultimately, the Farm Bill assumes that every small farmer wants to become a specialty producer selling to restaurants. But what about those farmers who want to feed their local schools, elder-care facilities, Head Start programs, or homeless shelters? The Farm Bill may contain multitudes, but it can’t contain this.

In any case, a land reform conversation is bigger than the purview of the Department of Agriculture. There’s no simple policy to address this. But it’s possible to imagine a set of ideas that 1) allow a new generation of landless Americans to steward the land for the public good; 2) build a vibrant and productive rural economy; and 3) make rural retirement possible without poverty.

At a minimum, these would involve:

  • Ceilings maximum acreage on agricultural land ownership. A 1970s Congressional bill would have prohibited corporations with more than $3 million in non-farm assets from buying land;
  • Conservation easement legislation to guarantee that small farmland remains in production and under small-farm ownership;
  • Student debt forgiveness in exchange for farming;
  • Farmworkers’ right to organize and to living wages;
  • Investment in rural healthcare infrastructure;
  • Financially secure retirement options for rural elders; and
  • Support for the agroecological farming needed for 21st Century agriculture.

These were ideas that were part of a national conversation forty one years ago at the First National Conference on Land Reform, which took place in April 1972 in San Francisco, bringing together representatives of the Inter-Religious Coalition on Housing, the NAACP, Friends of the Earth, and dozens of other organizations.

They knew what we know now: That progressive land reform in the United States could address a range of environmental and social problems, encouraging sustainable climate-change ready farming, providing (literally) green jobs, and reimagining rural America.

We already, for example, forgive student debt in exchange for public service. If we can support the young teachers who nourish the minds of America’s next generation, might we not support those graduates nourishing those students’ bodies? A student loan payment could become a land payment under the right policy. The agencies that can and should start discussing this include the Department of Agriculture, Social Security Administration, the Internal Revenue Service. and the Department of Justice Department of Education?

We aren’t naïve. There will be resistance to tilting the playing field away from speculators and Big Ag. Agricultural land is “like gold with yield.”

It’s hard enough to imagine the government doing right by social security, let alone by linking that conversation with farming. Yet by supporting the elderly and investing in the young, we can choose to build a food system today that will feed all Americans tomorrow.

Such a food system will need to address the deep concentrations of power that lie at the heart of the modern food system. For that to happen, we’ll need to talk about some awkward subjects. So pull up a chair and let’s begin.
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(on the same page/right column – ABOUT: Bob St. Peter lives and farms on rented land in Sedgwick, Maine with his wife, Juli, and daughters, Luna and Emma. They raise small livestock, flowers, seeds, and produce. In 2011, Sedgwick became the first of 10 Maine towns to pass a Local Food & Community Self-Governance Ordinance, sparking a movement across the U.S. to localize food policy decisions and protect traditional foodways. Bob is a founding member of Food for Maine’s Future, a grassroots organization working to build a sustainable and democratic food system in Maine, and coordinates a program to connect small-scale family farms and seasonal farmworkers in Downeast Maine).


Local Food and Community Self-Governance Ordinance – Town of Sedgwick, Maine;

Local Food Local;

Local Food and Self-Governance Ordinance:

2 more Maine towns pass local foods ordinance, on Maine Sunday Telegram, by Avery Yale Kamila, June 14, 2012;

Maine’s Local Food Ordinances Tested, on Food Safety News, by Alli Condra,  November 21, 2011;


Does Land Reform Threaten Our Future? 48.02 min, (Ep. 1 of The Big Debate), uploaded by sabcdigitalnews, Feb 27, 2013 (SABC’s Homepage, and Address: SABC, cnr. of Artillery and Henley Rd, Auckland Park, Johannesburg, South Africa 2092; Contact).

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