Renewing the Countryside

Report date
February 2015

What has been most instrumental to your progress?

The issue of farmland access is large and affects numerous people. In getting our heads around the issue, we engaged over 75 stakeholders. This approach enabled us to better understand the landscape and complexities. But from there, we really needed to drill down on specific issues, and we realized this work was best done by a small group of people who had the best grasp of the issues and had the time and interest to do this work. This went a little against our grain because we knew other people were interested in the subject, but we also knew that we didn’t have the time and resources to move this forward by committee. At this point, this strategy has worked well and it has enabled us to make inroads. We also are nearing a position where we can again open up the dialogue, share what we’ve learned, and bring the wider stakeholders back to the table.
Two of our core team members come from the business world, and their participation has been instrumental to our progress. At a meeting a couple of months ago, one of these individual noted that the project seemed stuck. He pointed out that while we had done the planned research and outreach, we seemed stuck on taking the next big step of actually trying to make some farmland accessible. He suggested that it was time to stop “thinking” about making land accessible and to actually try to “do” it. He acknowledged that it would likely be messy and we might fail, but by digging into a real situation we would learn valuable lessons to move us forward. And so that is what we are doing.
While this project focuses on farmland access, it complements other aspects of our work that are addressing issues of building a robust, sustainable food system. Because we look at this work as part of a larger system, we find areas of crossover that benefit multiple projects. For instance, in working with a farmer on finding capital for his business (a separate project), we learned that he also had a farmland access problem. This was quite a surprise as he is a well-respected, well-established vegetable farmer who is a key supplier to many of the Twin Cities food co-ops. We quickly realized that with his connection to many buyers (and their customers) that he would be a great addition to our team. He began working with us, and recently was selected as an Endowed Chair in Agricultural Systems at the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Minnesota. This will enable him to direct more of his time towards this very issue.

Key lessons learned

We knew going into this that land access issues were complex, but I don’t think we realized just how complex. There are so many dimensions and considerations including policy issues, family dynamics, tax and legal issues. Mucking through these has been challenging, and we learned that you just have to keep taking little steps and trust that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Reflections on inclusive, collaborative or resourceful problem-solving

Up to this point in the initiative, resourceful has been the most important element. The work that has been done on farmland access by others in other parts of the country, and to some extent, in Minnesota, has been extremely useful to our process. This information has meant that we did not need to start from scratch. We were able to learn from what others have done, both their successes and failures. Resourcefulness has also been important in leveraging this work. We’ve made connections with a variety of groups and organizations that have an interest in this issue, thus enabling us to stretch our resources.

Other key elements of Community Innovation

Not that come to mind.

Understanding the problem

Our process has included gatherings of stakeholders to provide input, learning from experts in the field (both locally and nationally), and having clarifying conversations with a range of key players. We’ve gained clarity about who needs to be at the table. One of these groups is people within state and local agencies who regulate who can own farmland and what can be done with farmland. In particular, we’ve become very familiar with both the benefits and limitations of Minnesota’ corporate farm law. This law, which has the purpose of ensuring that farmland isn’t bought up by large corporations, limits some of the innovative strategies that we know have worked in other states. But within the corporate farm law there is the ability for nonprofit corporations to own farmland and lease it to farmers. Therefore, we are focusing our efforts on a farmland trust. This could potentially reside within Renewing the Countryside or may need to be created outside of the organization. We are now taking steps to explore the most viable options. We are fortunate that Iowa has just launched the Iowa Sustainable Land Trust, and their leadership is willing to “mentor” our process.

If you could do it all over again...

Trust the process and be patient. It is easy to have big visions, but they come with a frustration in the speed at which progress moves. If this mantra had been drilled in our brains, we may have been less anxious when things weren’t going as fast as we would have liked.

One last thought

We really appreciate the Foundation’s willingness to invest in new and innovative initiatives. It’s one thing to give a grant to an organization to keep doing the good work they have already proven they can do. It is another to take a risk on people wanting or needing to do something new or different. While that sort of risk seems the norm among art funders – it has been missing in the area of social change in Minnesota. We could not do this work without this support, and the Foundation has opened doors.