I’ve written previously that I suspect that given the enormous pressure to feed a world of 9-10billion people that will dominate the political, social and activist dynamics of this century, Land access is going to be one of the central issues. Indeed, in much of the Global South it has been for many years – consider the Brazilian MST as one of many examples of how people’s movements bent on establishing land access for the very poor emerge. At the same time, we can see the global land-buy-up occurring now as nations as diverse as China, India and Saudi Arabia, all facing a future in which the land they rest on cannot feed their populations, rising world market food prices and political stability that depends on feeding their populace look outwards to other nations to find places to grow food.
We know that access to land to grow food is essential to the food security of both urban and rural dwellers when, because of poverty or food crisis, you cannot afford to buy food. Finding a place to grow is likely to be a central issue for many of us – and those who need land the most are those least likely to have the ability to purchase it. We also know that food is profitable for corporations and market speculators, and an essential element of stability. In many ways the intersection between the interests of nations, private corporations, more affluent consumers who want ever-more meat and high value animal products and biofuels for their vehicles and the poor who just want something to eat and are constantly outbid for the grains that cars and livestock consume are not likely to be happy.
There is an upside however – the potential to share land resources, and optimize what we do have. In the Global North, there is an enormous amount of underutilized land that could grow food – much of it extraordinarily good land that was divided into housing and golf courses, public greenspaces (note, I am not arguing by any means that all public greenspaces should be farmed, but many could offer areas for community gardening, or reduce chemical and carbon usage by supporting some grazing animals instead of gas guzzling mowers). That is, we could share land – and to the profit of owners and non-owners alike.
In 2009, Landshare was launched in the UK to do just that — share land. As stated on the website, “The concept is simple: to connect people who wish to grow food with landowners willing to donate spare land for cultivation.” A mere two years later, more than 60,000 people have signed up to share some 3,000 acres of land across every region of the country. At the outset, creator Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall proclaimed it a “food revolution destined to be the next great thing.” The project, and others like it, can be credited with helping solve multiple problems with that one simple concept. Food security, carbon emissions associated with factory farming and food transport, crop diversity, community building, and more find a resolution in Landshare… and land sharing.
With the U.S. boasting its own version of Landshare with a capital L in SharedEarth, collaborative land users had some nice coverage. Then, back in March, the two organizations joined forces to become SharedEarth Globally and make it that much easier to match growers with land owners. Like Fearnley-Whittingstall, SharedEarth founder Adam Dell sees amazing potential for the model: “I think it scales all the way up to I’m gonna be a farmer, and all the way down to I have a fire escape on my building in New York, I’m growing some food and I can use some help. We’ve got a couple of gardening groups who have signed up. We’d love to get some churches. The Catholic Church is the largest landowner in America. I’d love if churches, synagogues signed up, and said ‘We’ve got land, grow stuff! We’ll donate some of the produce to our food bank.’ There are lots of iterations this can take.”
He’s absolutely right. Matchmaking between the people who own dirt and the people who want to work it comes in many shades. Having started in Seattle, Washington, Urban Garden Share now tackles the task in a number of U.S. cities, including Louisville, Kentucky and Atlanta, Georgia. The mission they have chosen to accept — pairing “together eager gardeners with eager gardens. When neighbors come together and co-operatively grow food, dirt flies and good things happen.”
A commenter on the article points out that another organization, GrowFood has the mission of getting 50 million people to participate in food production – very like the call for millions of new farmers that Aaron Newton and I made in _A Nation of Farmers_. In our book we spend a lot of time emphasizing that the first step in participating in food production cannot be “buy expensive land with a mortgage” – we must begin to farm on land we do not own, because most of the people who most need (or will need) to grow food also cannot afford to take on the debt required by high land prices. We must find ways of establishing a relationship to the soil beneath our feet that does not begin exclusively from ownership.
Owners do need this, though – how many older people have met who have large yards, and lament they cannot keep them up anymore? How many people do I know who can’t get out to the farmer’s market, who get home when it is already dark, but who long for vegetables from their own dirt – and whose unemployed neighbors need fresh fruits and vegetables and good work to do? The average American farmer is approaching 60 – if their farms are not to disappear, we must find new ways of connecting younger farmers with older ones.
My family has been sharing land for some time – for many years we bartered our pasture to a friend and sheep farmer for wool and meat and occasional use of her truck. We have offered up access to land and even our apartment for those who want to farm. Such relationships don’t always come easy – a few years ago our shared sheep arrangement resulted in my friend losing an animal – I would have acted differently than she did, and was frustrated because I felt like the animal need not have died. At the same time, we have managed to work respectfully and collaboratively, recognizing that different farmers do things differently. At the same time, seeing our land well managed and benefit from good farming has been sufficient incentive to keep the relationship going (until this year, when it ended because my friend has access to a nearer pasture to her property).
Sharing isn’t easy – and in fact, our culture tends to magnify just how difficult it is, with the narrative that is always easier to just do it yourself. Well, speaking as farmer who farmed with only her family, that’s usually a heck of a lot less easy. That’s not to claim that working out collaborative relationships is simple – but then again, neither is going it alone!