Finding Land - Shared Land

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.

Kelly McCartney has a wonderful article about the ways that US and UK land-share organizations are bringing people without land and people who need more hands together:

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!


More like this

While I agree that using land and irrigation resources for ornamental purposes may soon have to change, I am skeptical that lawns and gardens will provide much of an answer. According to DAVID PIMENTAL of the Alliance for a Sustainable USA (AS-USA)

â At present, about 8% of the 100 million acres in California -- 8 million acres -- are devoted to crops. Yet each year about 122,000 acres -- 1.5% -- are lost from production when swallowed by urban and industrial spread.â

Then there is the problem of what are you going to irrigate this land with. I read last year somewhere,( sorry I forgot to note this) that significant acreage was taken out of farming so that the water could be used for urban development. DAVID PIMENTAL of the Alliance for a Sustainable USA (AS-USA) adds that â about 250 gallons of water are needed to produce 1 pound of grain. To irrigate an acre of corn requires nearly 1 million gallons of water during the 3 to 4 month growing season. Nearly all of California's cropland, plus large percentages of forage and pasture land, are irrigated. The total land area currently irrigated in California is about 7.6 million acres.â

So I can't help but wonder what is going to happen as the population doubles in the next few decades?

Bob Gotschall

By Bob Gotschall (not verified) on 01 Jul 2011 #permalink

@ Bob Gatschall,

One of the enigmas of the USDA/agribusiness formula, is that the goal is the national production of grain X, or fruit Y. Environments are often compromised, sometimes badly, to compete in the national markets with products ill-suited to a particular developer.

Artificial fertilizers, and even irrigation, aren't the absolute, irrefutable necessities that modern agribusiness makes them. The difference is whether the goal is to "grow food" or to "make money adhering to USDA guidelines and modern agribusiness practices, that happen often produce food (or ethanol, apparently)."

I lived a time in Palo Alto. The neighbor's fig tree did well there, with no irrigation. Was the space occupied by that tree actually lost for food production, or just lost for agribusiness development? (In this case, the production was lost -- the fig tree pre-dated the current occupant, and the fruit was left to rot.)

Over decades, various plants and trees can transform a soil from marginal to productive. In some places pasturing makes more sense, for land development. But none of the alternatives are going to be popular with the big agribusiness operators, or with a government that depends on food exports to enact foreign policy, and meet foreign commitments. We have seen in the last couple years that the Obama administration has deliberately mis-stated stored and planted crop quantities to make more available for export than America can tolerate -- resulting in higher domestic food prices and spot shortages.

I cannot for the life of me understand an administration bound to enact cap and trade as if it were important, and deny that climate change means reduced crop production under the agribusiness monoculture model. Either the climate is changing, less predictable, and no longer serving earlier functions we had come to depend upon -- or there is no climate change. Me, I see the change and unpredictability here in Oklahoma. What it looks like now in California, that seems to vary with the winds of politics.

It might be interesting to check the profiles of who decided what acres to deny irrigation to, what those fields had been producing, who the competitors to those fields were/are, and what money changed hands, arriving at that conclusion.

Are San Francisco and Los Angeles balancing their needs for water against water availability? And does that balance account for accepting masses of illegal or other immigrants, including folk moving from other parts of California or the US? Should any city with water/energy/revenue or other infrastructure limitation be ready to post signs, "Sorry, full up. Check back in X years."? Is refusing to do so ethical, moral, and practical?

@ Bob Gotschall,


California cities claiming water from anyone -- other states, farms, etc. -- seems to be more about bullying the world, than to taking responsibility for one's own resources, needs, and actions. I have heard from neighbors in several states since I left California, that often feel California has much to learn about taking responsibility for the consequences of the actions they take.

And I doubt your 8 million acres includes the annual summer CAMP (California Against Marijuana Producers) campaign targets -- gardens and fields in production, few with irrigation or sophisticated infrastructure. And I imagine it overlook gardens and patios and backyard trees and shrubs producing mere food, and not money made adhering to USDA and modern agribusiness practices.

My own main response to this essay Sharon- yep, totally; but pretty much none of my neighbors are ready to hear this, or think about it; let alone do it. They will be, someday; but it will take quite a lot more pain before they get there. At the moment, most of my rural and small town neighbors are still maintaining vast dandelion free lawns.

It's a big pain in the neck being way ahead of the curve. It can help save sanity, though, to just recognize that's where you/we are.

Not ready to subscribe to inevitable, unstoppable human population growth assumptions. Lots of events, such as natural calamities, war, plague, and so on, could change the picture and free us from the obligation to continually produce more food. Some things are beyond our control.

The US & UK have many foreclosed homes standing empty. If there's one near you, pop 'round back and stick a few seeds in the flower beds. You'll lose some, but seeds are cheap. While you're there, look for "ornamental" fruit trees. There are fruit and nut trees in office and apt. complexes that are ignored. Many offices decorate their flower beds in winter with "ornamental" cabbages.

Mark, even if we have a population crash (which doesn't seem all that "freeing" to me) the larger kinds of crash that accompany it aren't going to free us from the need to produce food. I think this reasoning is pretty heavily flawed.

Bob, irrigation is an issue, and growing food in the ever-drier west is likely to be a growing problem - but the problem isn't limited to urban and suburban garden agriculture. All California farms are likely to experience heavy water stress. Indeed, intensive agriculture suited to dry climates is likely to work better on a very small scale, rather than a large one.

As for your first point - I don't quite follow how that supports your argument - the fact that 8% of CA farmland is being swallowed (I think that figure is dated to before the recession, though) suggests that it would have to come out of lawns - no one has ever made a combine that can go around the Sandbox, under the clothesline and miss the bikes.

What we do know is that in `1944, US victory gardens grew as much produce as all the large farms in the US did. We also know that gardening has a huge role in staving off hunger in places in economic and social crisis - so unless you have a compelling reason why this wouldn't be so in the US, it seems likely that history will repeat itself.



Sharon, you're twisting my words again.

"...the larger kinds of crash that accompany it aren't going to free us from the need to produce food."

No kidding.

I said, "...the obligation to continually produce more food." Meaning more each year than the last. This is a treadmill we are running on and it keeps speeding up.

Perhaps you would like to see more green revolutions, more total land under cultivation, fewer natural, wild places whose great sin is providing food for non-economically important species.

I recently learned that our county has a decades-old program where the county farms unused land that people volunteer for use, using donated equipment, seeds and supplies -- and the food recipients provide the labor. The program was started, I was told, because people were calling looking for food.

It's a public program which costs the county almost nothing, and since much of the land is former farm or pasture-land, there isn't really any new habitat destruction.

Let's change liability laws while we're at it. Leasing land, using land, even simply going over someone else's land needs to be backed by liability laws that make sense. Suing the land owner(s) for any injury (even injury caused by the sheer stupidity of the injured) does not help a landlowner want to share the land.

Also, protect the landowner by scratching those old laws where if someone simply walks over a corner of your lot for X-years, that corner is "lost" to the owner (unless the owner charged at least $1/yr or such for use of the land.)

I am not a landlowner. I lease and I am aware of the need for me to be a smart lessor, such as to protect the landowner willing to lease to me from stupid lawsuits.

By the same token, lessors need to have access to some kind of lease. Using someone else's land means you the renter make improvements to the land, you fertilize or rototile or lay a good irrigation grid. Most of the time it takes more than one year for your improvements to pay off.

Also, change those stupid land use laws that require $70,000 +++ worth of permits to do *anything* on the land. I'm in California and permits were once designed to protect the environment. They've run amok! It takes a bazillion "environmental studies" to get a permit to do anything with land! It takes $$$$$$ for a landowner to have a renter and get a "business permit" for the parcels. In California, we allow 500,000 illegal new immigrants to cross the border every single year (although fewer are crossing now due to the bad economy) but we require super-expensive permits for any structure on land, for any earth work etc.

I of course want to see development that protects the environment, if such is possible .. but while there's a need for even "small" ag projects to be done well, we need fewer buraucrats.