Renewing the Countryside
What has been most instrumental to your progress?
Investing time in relationships. We had a series of small, working meetings with different groups of stakeholders where we dug deeper into the issues tied to farmland access. This included a meeting where we discussed issues related to planning and zoning; a couple meetings where we talked about the corporate farm law; a meeting focused on financing farmland; a meeting where we focused on easements. While it was a lot of meetings, the value was twofold. First, we were able to tease apart the various interests and opportunities and identify the parameters of this effort. Understanding where we would focus our work, and, as importantly, where we would not, was extremely valuable. The second benefit of the meetings is that it helped strengthen our relationships with the various entities working in this space. Because a number of these relationships were new, it was important to spend time with people to better understand their work and perspectives and to build trust.
Learning from those outside our community. We had a few people from outside our community who we connected with this year whose input was valuable to our progress. One person was Suzan Erem from Sustainable Iowa Farmland Trust. Suzan was the founder of this trust and just started it about six months prior to our meeting her. Suzan generously shared how and why she had started the land trust as well as the challenges and opportunities she was seeing. This information has helped us assess the pros and cons of starting a land trust. Another person who we connected with was Eamon Heberlein. Raised in Viroqua, Wisconsin, Eamon is currently an undergraduate at Yale. When we met him, he was a year into an indepth study on farmland access in conjunction with the National Young Farmers Coalition. It was very serendipitous that our paths crossed and Eamon has been very helpful in bringing learnings from across the country to our effort.
Having a model take shape. Many times in this project we have felt like we were banging our heads up against the wall. We knew where we wanted to get, but the pathway was not clear. We had originally proposed a process that we thought would lead to the pathway, but as we moved through the process we found that we had more questions than answers. Finally, after what seemed like endless meetings, a model began to take shape. We have been sharing this model with partners, getting their input, and refining it.
Key lessons learned
Trust the process and keep talking. As mentioned in #3 above, we were feeling discouraged that despite having numerous conversations and meetings (and good conversations at that) a clear plan had not emerged. It felt, at times, like we were spinning our wheels. At other times it seemed like the partners were coming at the issue with such different goals (e.g. reliable food supply, conservation, small farm viability, social justice, farmland preservation) that it was difficult to find a solution that worked across the board. But by continuing the conversations and meetings, a solution has emerged. It isn’t perfect, and we will need to secure funding to implement it, but it is very promising.
We’ve learned this before, but we were reminded of it in this work – collaborations take time and patience. Trust needs to be built, and that doesn’t happen overnight.
Reflections on inclusive, collaborative or resourceful problem-solving
Collaborative. There is not an entity (private, government, non-profit) whose singular focus in farmland access. Rather, there are a couple dozen people within organizations that are aware of the issue and are interested in solutions. So we have worked to be inclusive, but what is helping us progress is collaboration. Because of the limited resources all those involved have (in terms of both time and money to focus on this), the only way we can affect change is by working together and leveraging our resources and our influence.
Understanding the problem
As noted above, there were times that it seemed that that process was leading to more questions than answers. That turned out to be a good thing. When we started out we had some ideas about the direction that the process would lead (e.g. forming a farmland trust), but the process led us away from that solution, at least in the mid-term. We also ventured into areas we hadn’t anticipated – like ecological payments – which may be a valuable tool (within a box of tools) for our solution.
If you could do it all over again...
Frame the issue as farm viability, with land access being one component. It took many meetings and research to hone in on the issue that it isn’t land access alone that is the problem. Getting new farmers access to land to grow vegetables, for instance, is great, but if the business doesn’t provide a living wage – it isn’t sustainable. The solution we have developed will incorporate farm viability – but if we had realized that (or had articulated that) up front, we might be further along.
One last thought
Continue to appreciate the Foundation’s investment in innovation. We also appreciate the check-ins with our program officer.