Ashoka Fellow since 2022   |   United States

Ian McSweeney

The system of private landownership in the US is short-sighted and extractive, and therefore incompatible with regenerative farming. By developing and spreading the Agrarian Commons model, Ian…
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This description of Ian McSweeney's work was prepared when Ian McSweeney was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2022.

Introduction

The system of private landownership in the US is short-sighted and extractive, and therefore incompatible with regenerative farming. By developing and spreading the Agrarian Commons model, Ian McSweeney has created an alternative to private land-ownership that aligns with and supports the value, time-frames, and redemptive ecological work of regenerative farmers.

The New Idea

Ian McSweeney and a national coalition of creative young farmers launched The Agrarian Commons as a necessary and innovative land-ownership model that addresses and transforms the current realities of how land is owned, how tenure and equity are conveyed, and how land stewardship is carried out. This model challenges the current model of land ownership that is biased towards the wealthy and large-scale agricultural corporations and offers a new, sustainable approach for the small, regenerative farmer.

Agrarian Commons are lands that are acquired and owned by a democratically run non-profit and worked by regenerative farmers who hold 99-year leases from the nonprofit. The model builds on precedents set by conservation land trusts and community land trusts, both of which have gained influence in the US over the last few decades. These formats, however, can focus too myopically on conservation or on community housing and, in so doing, discourage productive agricultural uses. While this is good for conservation, it’s bad for agriculture and sustainable food systems. Ian believes deeply that food is a primary connector of people to the land. But access to land has been historically denied to indigenous, Black, undocumented, and low-income people, and economic conditions and land prices now put agricultural land out of reach of all but the wealthiest individuals or large corporations. While land trusts provide for conservation, recreational, and some cultural uses, until now that has been no legal framework in the U.S. to collectively hold agricultural land in a way that ensures humans actively steward it in the best way we now know how: through regenerative agriculture.

Launched May 1st, 2020, the Agrarian Trust addresses ownership, tenure, and equity directly through manifesting Agrarian Commons projects (currently in a dozen states). The people behind an Agrarian Commons raise awareness and engagement, build community, and carry out fundraising campaigns. Meanwhile, the legal entity that is the Agrarian Commons can acquire, hold ownership of, and ensure the ecological stewardship of farmland. In this way Ian proves that it is possible to de-commodify the land, catalyze community, and convey secure, equitable lease tenure to farmers to regeneratively grow food in ways that connect with, engage, and feed communities.

The Problem

The United States was founded by separating indigenous people from their land, much of which was then worked by slave labor, which built wealth for the landowners and created wealth inequalities that still exist today. Currently, 70% of the farmers and farmworkers who feed us are people of color, who own less than 2% of the farmland they work. This is an unsustainable paradigm. At the same time, farmers who do own their land are saddled with debt and have generally encouraged their children to pursue other non-farm careers. The average landowning farmer today is 62 years old. Having dissuaded their heirs, the only exit for many of these farmers is to sell their land, and increasingly the only buyers who can afford it are larger, wealthier agribusiness or housing developers and speculators.

A full 400 million acres of land in the United States is expected to change hands over the next two decades, part of the largest transfer of wealth ever seen. That this will contribute to even greater concentration of wealth and fewer working farmers owning the land is a predictable crisis. The per acre cost of farmland is steadily increasing while the income of the average farmer has decreased. The USDA reports 37 midsized farms close per day, a rate that has held steady since 2007. Most farms operating now are either very large or are small hobby farms. Meanwhile, new and beginning farmers struggle to access land, particularly land that isn’t completely degraded or prohibitively distant from their communities and markets. As Ian has observed, it is very easy to get big, but it has been nearly impossible to restore small farming.

For all the nostalgia and historic significance we give farmers in the U.S., in the grand scheme of things, farming as we currently know it in the U.S. is a relatively recent phenomenon; it’s only been 160 years since the 1862 Homestead Act began distributing “public” (stolen) land to future farmers in the American heartland, and every generation since has experienced dramatic shifts as part of the relatively rapid transition from small single-family claims carved out of the fertile prairies to the current consolidation of large, monolithic farm corporations. Many in recent generations, growing up on mid-sized farms in during the 80s “Farm Crisis” crisis for example, were encouraged to get out of farming altogether, and to seek careers anywhere other than agriculture. Meanwhile, young people who grew up in cities and suburbs were increasingly feeling disconnected from nature and their food systems, and now make the largest percentage of aspiring famers.

Regenerative agriculture, a suite of agricultural practices that boost soil health and biodiversity while combatting climate change, is a growing practice among forward-looking farmers. However, while smaller farmers tend to be more nimble and able to try new things, they have less secure access to smaller parcels of land. Furthermore, these regenerative practices, like carbon sequestration, tend to show their biggest benefits long-term, on a timeline longer than that of a human lifetime. But private land ownership skews landowners toward shortsightedness; lands (and homes) in the US are often an individual's greatest asset, and rather than preserve these for future generations, assets in the U.S. are sold off to finance old age. Furthermore, our model of intensive industrial farming encourages another sort of shortsightedness: taking the time and effort to rebuild soil and prioritize long-term environmental stewardship isn’t rewarded. While regenerative agriculture has significant benefits for food access and climate sustainability, without long-term land tenure and economic stability for its practitioners, it cannot be done well or incentivized.

Transforming our system of land ownership and land access is therefore necessary for regenerative agriculture to flourish, for economic equity for the people who feed us, and to ensure that humans can connect to nature in big, redemptive ways well into the future. The Agrarian Trust model is built on existing models for land trusts but operates in distinct and powerful ways. Conservation land trusts leave land on the market and do not address ownership issues, while community land trusts address ownership but don’t focus on agricultural land. What is needed is a new model that is tailored for regenerative agriculture, that shifts land ownership from private to collective, that provides longer time horizons for people working the land, and that unleashes the unique benefits of regenerative farming.

The Strategy

For many social and environmental changes to be realized- whether that’s cannabis legislation or switching to renewable energy sources- a process of raising awareness, calling for change, and building momentum is necessary. For agriculture, however, big change is already coming on its own. The population of farmers is aging, the economics of buying farmland outright have shifted, and 400 million agricultural acres will change hands in the next 20 years. This is a potent moment for change, if people can be presented with scalable solutions that meet their needs and promote the health of climate and community. Enter the Agrarian Commons.

What is an Agrarian Commons? In short, it’s a parcel of land held in common in a way that grants long-term access to the farmers who commit to stewarding it. While the farmers don’t own the land, they own secure 99-year leases as well as equity in all the infrastructure and improvements, including things like the healthier, thicker topsoil they produce over time. From a very technical perspective, each Agrarian Commons is owned by an incorporated nonprofit started by a volunteer board following the playbook Ian and the team at Agrarian Trust have developed. (Agrarian Trust is the organization that Ian founded and leads to spread and support the replication of Agrarian Commons.) An Agrarian Commons requires just $15-20k in initial, local legal fees to get established. The board of the new, local nonprofit must be 1/3 leaseholders, 1/3 community stakeholders and 1/3 Agrarian Trust team members. That local board commits to the Agrarian Trust core model and builds community agreements about how their specific Commons will operate. The board is then ready to own farmland, whether by accepting a donated parcel or raising funds to acquire land. They then lease the land to small farmers committed to regenerative practices. The farms are leased for the maximum length of time legal per state, in many cases a 99-year lease, and the Commons works with leaseholders to ensure that costs are manageable. Each Agrarian Commons can grow to include up to no more than twelve farms of varying sizes, at which point the recommendation is to start another stand-alone nonprofit; the ideal number of farms under the management of one nonprofit is 4-6, at which point a paid property manager is also sustainable. Agrarian Trust has already helped 14 Agrarian Commons incorporate in 12 states, with Vermont Law School having written up and shared (open source) all founding documents.

This model does many critical things effectively. Lifetime, affordable leases enable committed, deep land stewardship, including regenerative practices that often take many years, but have significant environmental benefits. While the farmers do not own the land and cannot sell it on the capital market, they do acquire tenure and equity, both of which they can use as collateral to invest further in their operations. Through careful documentation, they own all the infrastructure they inherit or build, and the holding of the lease itself has its own inherent value. Many also find that, once they’ve cleared this first major hurdle of gaining access to secure land, floodgates of resources are suddenly available to them, whether that’s a USDA grant for investing in fencing for rotational grazing, tax incentives for resting crop and pastureland, or grants, training, technical support, and even seeds (like for erosion-controlling STRIP prairies). This advances economic justice by allowing farmers who would otherwise be shut out for lack of access to land and capital (down payments and debt financing) to get into the system, and for their investments in their farm equipment and natural assets (like soil) to accrue in value. This model also enriches communities by building sustainable, local food systems managed by people who actually live in the community. Rather than a farming ecosystem dominated by ever-larger farms that enrich absentee landowners, produce biofuels, animal feeds, and a narrow range of staple crops, and are worked by people in precarious positions in a way that degrades our environment, Ian envisions and builds small-to-midsize farms owned and worked by communities and designed to improve the wellbeing of planet and people.

One example of the Agrarian Commons in action is now on full display in rural Maine. Since the early 2000s, a group of now 3,000 members of the Somali Bantu community have emigrated to the small, dilapidated mill towns in the former manufacturing region of Southern Maine. As a group, the Somali Bantus have a reputation of being hard-working, cooperative, and skilled at farming. And yet ten years in they were still living far below the poverty line, in a state rich in natural resources, rich in agricultural support services, and rich in conservation land trusts. What the Somali Bantus were lacking, however, was a foothold in the form of land ownership and a place for that hard work (often called “sweat equity”) to start to accrue long-term value. While they rented farmland here and there, they had never had more than a one-year lease. Ian worked discreetly with a local White-led land trust with deep pockets to find a farm and negotiate a purchase from the landowners. Then, rather than steward it like yet another conservation project (the current focus of Maine’s 80 land trust organizations), Ian guided the group in setting up an Agrarian Commons structure with the Somali Bantu community making up a majority of the board and holding a 99-year lease, as well as owning the house and farm buildings. With that ownership equity they were able to get their first business loan to then buy an office building and an old mill building in Lewiston where they’ve opened a halal processing plant. By last count 220 families have garden plots on the 100+ acre farm, and more than 20 fulltime jobs flow from the farm’s reincarnation as an Agrarian Commons.

Ian and the Agrarian Trust team have helped more than a dozen new Agrarian Commons set up around the U.S., each offering a locally-relevant, responsive way forward. There’s the example of a crowd-funded women-led farm in Appalachia as well as that of Caroline Gardner, a retiring farmer on Wimbley Island (near Seattle) who donated her 10-acre farm in order to seed the first Agrarian Commons and help create “a legacy of land and agriculture connected to people and place.” Ian has also helped a group of indigenous women in Massachusetts regain access and legal title to a piece of ancestral land 20 miles from Boson and along the Charles River. In this case, the sons of the original farmer still live on the site as one of the Commons’ other tenants, but they share the land with their co-leasees, members of the Nitmac and Wampanaug tribes, separated from these sacred shores for 346 years who now have a place to go connect with the water on days of remembrance. Ian has even helped one of the country’s first CSAs finally get secure land tenure after forty years of renting. (CSAs are “Community Supported Agriculture” farms, financed in part through an innovation where community members support small farmers by purchasing a season’s worth of produce up-front, thus giving farmers greater working capital at the time in the season when they need it most. This model has spread to some 15,000 farmers over the last 40 years and has allowed as many farming families to play a meaningful role in local food systems. But since it doesn’t address access to secure land tenure, CSA farmers are no better off financially than their conventional neighbors, especially if they continue to rent their land. CSAs may help build health, but not wealth.)

Ian envisions an Agrarian Commons in every state, shaped by their local community to meet specific geo-cultural needs and expressing a unique vision for their local future. Ian plans to double the number of Agrarian Commons in the next two years. He believes the moment is right. The small farmer movement is hungry for viable solutions, and with CSAs (15,000 established over 40 years) and conservation land trusts (3,000 backbone organizations and millions of acres in 100 years), rural changemakers in the U.S. have a proven track record of taking up and implementing a good idea when they come across one.

But Ian is not just inspired by the conservation land trust movement; he is aligning with it. According to the Land Trust Alliance, “land trusts have already conserved 61 million acres of private land across the nation — more than all of the national parks combined.” The majority of these acres have been committed because people care. The problem has been that many of these individuals operate in the paradigm of “people as separate” from nature, and therefore conserve their land to keep humans from living on it, sub-dividing it, or otherwise developing it. In the paradigm of “people as nature,” regenerative agriculture over the long-haul offers a way for humans to have a bigger redemptive impact on the environment. Ian is working with the Nature Conservancy in Nebraska to shift from exclusionary conservation work to collaborative, regeneration models. The Nature Conservancy gets land donations all the time, and Ian has helped them see that unless it’s a very high-value natural habitat, they are not in the best position to hold onto it and would now rather see it owned and used for regenerative agriculture. So, in Nebraska, which also happens to be home to the largest Mayan community outside of Central America, Ian’s model is helping transition farmland donations into new Agrarian Commons with preferential leases for indigenous and immigrant communities.

Ian is highly attuned to the shifts in our economy and culture, from the impact of Covid-19 on our global food system to the fact that longer lifespans are a chance for us to reexamine the way “family farms” have historically bundled housing and work, labor and love. Even land ownership, this foundational path to wealth and power in American culture, is shifting. Many in the present generation can’t independently afford a roof over their head; in more than 40 metro areas, those working for the minimum wage can’t afford a studio apartment. Ian asks, “in this day and age, who then can afford 50-100 acres?” Some will inherit and some can still afford to buy, but more and more farmers in the future will gain access to land thanks to the Agrarian Commons. And, because the land itself will remain in regenerative agriculture even after they move on, the long-term benefits will accrue for future generations. It’s not lost on Ian or his supporters that immigrant communities, women, indigenous folks, and historically marginalized people have connected most with the collective and collaborative ethos inherent in the Agrarian Commons model, or the foundational premise that people can and must enliven our agricultural landscapes. Over time, Ian is hopeful that the wider logic of holding land in a way that assures access to working people will become the norm.

The Person

Ian’s life’s work is centered on his concern that people are disconnected from land and each other, and he’s fixated on a particular paradox: the counter-intuitive reality that agriculture – as most widely practiced today - is one of the greatest polluters of land and water and a primary activity that actually separates increasing numbers of people from the land. And yet Ian holds onto a hopeful question: can agriculture be a force for good??

Ian grew up in southeastern Massachusetts with a farm in his backyard. The neighboring farm originally provided a seemingly-natural, nature-filled backdrop to his growing-up years, but then – in a shift to industrial agriculture – he watched these same fields get “totally destroyed” to grow sileage corn, and more broadly saw agriculture decimate the natural environment. And yet at the same time, his hope was buoyed by the US Supreme Court decision to change the Clean Water Act to protect inland waterways (and not just navigable waters). He was grappling with big changes and big problems, but also saw evidence of big solutions.

In search of even more big solutions, Ian had a very intrapreneurial early career. He got into real estate, became a broker, and eventually started a firm to blend land conservation, agriculture, and livelihoods. He was very involved in neighborhood conservation work, and then in working with small family foundations to leverage dollars in service of new, breakout ideas. It was while guiding the “spend down” of a foundation that he initially connected with Serverine von Flemming, the founder of Greenhorns, a national cultural organization supporting new farmers, and the group that would go on to advise and/or co-found the Agrarian Trust. Severine, Ian, and a cast of others – including Ashoka Fellows Jannelle Orsi of Sustainable Economies Law Center and Rachel Armstrong of Farm Commons – had begun convening to brainstorm better ways of getting new farmers access to land, and then laying the legal foundation for what would become the Agrarian Commons. With his life-long commitment to this issue and his particular expertise in land ownership, Ian became the first Executive Director of Agrarian Trust, the non-profit they founded to advance the work, and he is fully committed to “inspiring and modeling something unique and different”

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