Changing the Way We Think About Land Ownership for the Next Generation of Farmers

Equity Trust // USA

In 1969, Sam and Elizabeth Smith purchased an old dairy farm in Williamstown, Massachusetts. They named it Caretaker Farm and, over the years, transformed it into a diversified operation with crops and livestock, a home to many generations of apprentice farmers, the base for one of the first CSA programs in the country, and a place where a whole community gathered to connect with one another and the land. When Sam and Elizabeth were ready to retire, they wanted to pass the farm on to a new generation that would preserve its ecological diversity and continue to provide the community with fresh, organic food. But they realized there would be no way to keep the farm affordable for young farmers, and still generate sufficient retirement income for themselves. Most likely, the property would be bought by wealthy second-home owners, and a truly special place — an invaluable community resource — would be lost.

This kind of loss is happening all over the United States, particularly in places where scenic vistas or proximity to an urban area drives the price of land far above its agricultural value.

It is just this kind of loss that Equity Trust, a non-profit group based in Amherst, Massachusetts, hopes to prevent. Their mission is to “promote equity in the world by changing the way people think about and hold property.” The name itself is a play on the word equity: 1. a financial interest in a property, 2. a moral principle of fairness.

Photo by Loren Kerns, (CC BY 2.0)

Equity Trust worked with the Smiths to help them keep Caretaker alive for future generations. Ownership of the farm is now shared by four parties: The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which purchased an Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) — an easement that prohibits the development of the land and requires at least some minimal agricultural use; The Williamstown Rural Land Foundation, which purchased the land, including that subject to the APR; the Smiths, who retained ownership of one of two houses on the farm and a 99-year lease to a small plot of land immediately surrounding it; and the family that now runs the farm (former apprentices of the Smiths), who purchased the main farmhouse and the barns and other agricultural improvements, and hold a 99-year lease to the rest of the land. When they are ready to sell the farm, the APR ensures the farm will remain affordable for the next generation of farmers.

Photo by Loren Kerns, (CC BY 2.0)

In addition to helping local land trusts and farmers like the Smiths come up with these kinds of creative solutions, Equity Trust receives loans from individuals and organizations that want to make investments with a positive social impact. The Trust then re-lends the money to entities that fulfill a community need and/or promote alternative models of land ownership. $1,000 is the minimum amount that be can lent to the Trust, with the lender choosing her own rate of return below a specified (already low) maximum. Borrowers can request anywhere from $5,000 to $150,000, with loan terms of up to five years.

Equity Trust places particular emphasis on supporting organizations that are able to ensure the permanent protection of land — both urban and rural — for agriculture, but they also support projects that preserve land for conservation, that keep housing affordable for families, or use land to fulfill other community needs — e.g. for green power, homeless shelters, or art spaces. Loans have been made to an impressively diverse range of projects: an intentional community and farm in Oregon; the Boston-based Coalition for Occupied Homes in Foreclosure; a project in Appalachia that makes land impacted by strip mining available for community use; a cooperative farm in upstate New York that follows biodynamic and permaculture practices; a community power co-op in Vermont; a homeless hospitality center in Connecticut — and many more.

From the Equity Trust website: “Economics is not an abstract technical science, not a construction of law or calculations in the marketplace, and it is not impersonal. Rather, economics is fundamentally a web of relationships, the relationship of individuals to one another, the communities that we live within, and the earth that sustains us.” Today’s global economy does not easily breed optimism, but the folks at Equity Trust seem to have found it: “We approach these tasks in the spirit of risk-taking and innovation, and with great hope.” Looking through the list of projects Equity Trust has helped bring to life, it is surprisingly easy to feel hopeful.

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