Land trusts are non-profit organizations that protect land directly by buying it, accepting it as a donation or acquiring a partial interest called a conservation easement that allows the land trust to protect the conservation values of the land forever. Land trusts have taken up where government left off preserving land, largely in the 1980s, although state, federal and land trust partnerships are more common and effective today. Land trusts generally can act more quickly and efficiently than municipal governments, although they often work together to protect landscapes of local significance.
In community supported agriculture (CSA), members of the public buy shares of a farm’s output and receive their proportionate share in food. These farms provide good food at a good price, and strengthen community as people with common values interact.
by Alix Hopkins
The industrial revolution changed the way we use land and grow food – for the worse. Over the past few decades, two movements have been reclaiming land to benefit people and the environment. One, including the land trust movement, is devoted to land conservation. The other, the way we grow and distribute food, includes community supported agriculture (CSA) farms, where nonfarm members buy “shares” to support local family farms and receive fresh, healthful food in return.
These are complementary efforts. When conditions are right, almost all the goals of one could be strengthened by working with the other. The idea of managing conserved land to produce food for a community is not new, but it has not yet flourished as it should.
The land trust and the CSA movements are both committed to long-term stewardship of land. Land trusts generally are more oriented toward “landscape” scale, “wild forever” or conservation for recreation, although managing protected land for forestry, farming or other uses is gaining momentum.
The CSAs focus on growing food for local communities and they depend on available farmland and a nearby membership. As working farms, CSAs also need to be near such infrastructure as machinery repair shops and feed and seed suppliers. Finding good land to suit those needs is a key factor for a CSA, so CSAs can benefit from local land trust conservation efforts – while feeding land trust members and supporting their work.
Both movements have deep roots but got their modern start in the 1980s. Today, an estimated 1,300 CSA farms exist, according to the Robyn Van En Center (www.csacenter.org), and more than 1,700 land trusts are conserving more than 37 million U.S. acres, according to the Land Trust Alliance (www.lta.org).
The people involved with land trusts and CSA are, largely, kindred spirits, activists who collaborate with local communities to accomplish their goals.
Both movements can encompass urban landscapes and populations. Some supporters do not live near the land but still support protecting or yielding from it.
Where politics and funding are involved, CSA and land trust populations often share an abiding appreciation for rural values and a “sense of place.” Both honor a way of life, community, family and self, and want to further agricultural equity and value-added results. These elements often powerfully reconnect participants to childhood experiences, which can translate to strong public and financial backing.
Maine has more than 100 land trusts and more than 100 CSAs. Few are paired, but some of the best-known land trust-CSA partnerships in Maine seem to be thriving. These include Crystal Spring Community Farm (www.crystalspringcsa.com). This business is owned by Seth Kroeck and Maura Bannon, while the Brunswick/Topsham Land Trust (www.btlt.org) owns Crystal Spring Farm, part of which is protected by a conservation easement held by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources (DAFRR). Likewise, the Broadturn Farm business (www.broadturnfarm.com) is owned and operated by John Bliss and Stacy Brenner at Meserve Farm, which is owned by the Scarborough Land Conservation Trust (www.scarboroughcrossroads.org/slct/) and protected by DAFRR.
Combining CSAs and land trusts creates a wider constituency with shared resources, knowledge and political influence. Older land trust members may have deep community and political experience that can help younger CSA activists, while CSAs introduce families to the importance of knowing where quality food is grown and who grows it. This expanded base will create greater opportunities for community interaction, collaboration and civic service.
Land trusts often preserve land for farming as well as for scenic and environmental benefits. These values, critical for our wellbeing, are sometimes criticized as maintaining property values for limited populations. However, as more people are attracted to agriculture, this land becomes more valuable. Maine Farmland Trust (www.mainefarmlandtrust.org) executive director John Piotti says, “There are 200 farmers in our database but they can’t afford the land,” especially near population centers. In response, MFT’s FarmLink Program helps connect farmers with Maine farms. So, land trusts are one key to increasing the supply of locally grown food.
Land trusts gain acreage and credibility by preserving working farms. Members of Common Harvest Farm, an organic CSA in Wisconsin, live an hour away in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. They value knowing the farmers and the farm as well as small pockets of community that form at city drop-off sites. Common Harvest owners Margaret Pennings and Dan Guenther bought their 40-acre farm with help from the West Wisconsin Land Trust and members of their church. The land trust also purchased a conservation easement on the farm.
A land trust/CSA partnership can help alleviate the stresses of family life by offering one-stop shopping for food and outdoor programs for visitors of all ages. For example, Maine Coast Heritage Trust owns Aldemere Farm in Rockport. As farm manager Ron Howard notes, its Farmhands after-school program is so popular that kids don’t want to leave when they get older. Although not a CSA, Aldemere has become integral to community life in Rockport, building awareness and understanding of how farming makes life better.
How Partnerships Work
When farms change hands, buyers often pay market value – i.e., what the land would bring if it could be developed for home sites. Several alternatives exist. For example, farmers can sell conservation easements to land trusts to raise capital to improve the farm, and land trust donors who helped purchase the easement can take tax deductions for their donations and become CSA members.
Land trusts can help new farmers buy land that will be maintained forever for agricultural use. Land ownership and rights to sell or pass on the property can be covered in various ways. For example, Vermont Land Trust (www.vlt.org) is a nationally recognized agricultural-based organization. Agriculture director Alex Wylie says that a primary tool for VLT is buying, conserving and reselling a farm through the Farmland Access Program, which includes an “Option to Purchase at Ag Value.” This option preserves the right for VLT to intercede if a farm is in danger of being purchased by a non-farmer or a non-family member. This restriction is written into the conservation easement that accompanies the deed on the farm. “Without this option,” Wylie says, “a farm can easily turn into an estate in 20 years. These conservation projects can be complicated, but they serve as an important community resource near populations where the public is really interfacing with agriculture.”
The VLT program works well for properties near population centers, enabling CSAs to start and incorporating urban dwellers in the land trust–through the CSA, urban gardens, farmers’ markets, volunteer work or donations to preserve a beloved farm. Another example, the Intervale Center (www.intervale.org) near Burlington, is an incubator farm/nonprofit organization where people can learn about farming, processing and distribution through mentors, and share tractors and other equipment. The center will soon expand to accommodate the high demand for such training and services.
Land trusts can act in other official capacities as needed. Maine’s Chewonki Foundation, which has a land trust component, served as fiscal agent for the Friends of Goranson Farm fundraising effort to replace a barn destroyed by fire. Chewonki also operates an organic CSA that is open to its staff.
Other resources include MOFGA’s online CSA directory and its organic marketing coordinator, Melissa White Pillsbury (www.mofga.org, “resources” tab; [email protected]); the Maine Land Trust Network (www.mltn.org), which can query members about potential matches; and Equity Trust (www.equitytrust.org), a national nonprofit with a new initiative called “Gaining Ground in Maine,” which focuses on the CSA/land tenure connection. The organization, which provides loans and ideas to help groups solve problems related to unaffordable land, housing and food, hired Kate Harris of Belfast as its Maine project coordinator. For more about “Gaining Ground in Maine,” contact Harris ([email protected]) or Equity Trust executive director Ellie Kastanopolous ([email protected]).
Land trusts are good at such “marketing” efforts as fundraising, providing programs for children and adults, and publicity, while on CSA farms, milking and weeding don’t leave much time for this work. Piotti says, “We need to promote the idea that individual actions (such as buying shares of produce) make a difference.” Great Works Regional Land Trust (www.gwrlt.org) in South Berwick does this by listing area farm stands and CSAs in its spring newsletter, and the Vermont Land Trust lists farms and CSAs on its Web site. Many land trusts invite farmers to serve on their boards.
Supporting the Synergy
Land trusts and CSAs conserve natural resources while promoting a healthy economy. They focus on future generations. They strive to provide public benefits. They promote better eating and quality of life, so are part of our healthcare system. Vast opportunities for public education and recreation exist on farms: U.K. residents have guaranteed access to thousands of miles of walking paths through farms and forests. Joining the land trust and CSA movements can more than double the number of people committed to the fundamental principles of each and may create a new community land stewardship movement.
About the author: Alix W. Hopkins of Pownal has worked in land conservation, community engagement and communications for almost 30 years. Her book Groundswell: Stories of Saving Places, Finding Community was published in 2005 by the Trust for Public Land. For updates and discussion on CSAs and land trusts, visit her interactive blog, https://alixwhopkins.blogspot.com.