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George Cheney – For the Rocky Mountain Farmer’s Union’s Cooperative Development Center newsletter
What does it mean to be held by the land? To me this means being seen, recognized, supported, allowed just to be. Being held also means being offered what you may need in a particular time, whether that be space, nourishment, health, connection, challenge, or reflection. The land can hold us, and our needs, as humans on this earth.
–Leigh Joseph, Held by the Land (2023)
To approach the lands we inhabit with a fresh perspective is to elevate land as something deserving of respect and love. This is a very different way to think about renting, purchasing, using, dwelling in, or passing through land than are accustomed “modern” ways of seeing and experiencing the land.
The absence of deep connections with the land—separation, estrangement, alienation—prevents us from appreciating that we are all part of nature, rather than treating nature as something “out there” and entirely different from us. This separation, which gradually came to take hold in “Western” societies over 500 years through the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and then with industrial and consumer societies, has led us astray–as we are finally beginning to understand.
Practically everyone can agree that there are acute crises related to the land, water and air. The old saying about land is that “they’re not making any more of it.” But we humans are literally making less of it or making it less able to support life. We are losing land to coastal erosion, deforestation, desertification, and long-term contamination. When we add the forced displacement of peoples by war, oppression, economic collapse, and climate change, we are reminded that land is precious. Certainly, Indigenous, and other displaced peoples understand what it means to lose their land—to be forced to leave that which you know, care for, and is part of you.
All of these issues make it imperative that we reconsider our lives on the land. When we add rising costs and large-scale corporate buyouts of land, we can see that the barriers to land access are many and they are formidable. For example, it was widely reported in the news this past March that the response of many large corporations to water shortages—and the coming “water wars” as they’re called—is to buy up huge tracts of land in the western US, sometimes purchasing entire towns!
This desire to control vast areas of land and water for private gain is the opposite of what we, all the people, need right now. We need cooperation, collaboration, and creative joint solutions to the myriad problems facing us, above all, climate change. There are a variety of balances to achieve in this effort, like multiple goals, the needs of as many people as possible, and concern for the land itself. This collective effort also requires being mindful of the big picture of history, cultures, and environment. A piece of land has a history, has been part of the lives of others, and is part of a much larger ecosystem.
Fortunately, people all over the world are thinking creatively and experimenting with new models of land access and use. Yet, these initiatives and experiments get far too little attention in the mainstream media. Innovative, collaborative models like community gardens, water-wise demonstration gardens and farms, community supported agriculture, regenerative agriculture, and the “rewilding” of even some urban and suburban areas are gradually becoming more familiar to us because of either our own experiences or cases that do get coverage. These are just a few examples.
What then does equitable land access mean in today’s context? It means reducing barriers for affordable housing for everyone, for farmers and ranchers trying to get a start, and for cultural as well as recreational uses of the land. We don’t read or hear so much about cultural uses of the land, particularly by Indigenous peoples, but these activities include maintaining traditions of ceremony, cultivating medicinal plants, sustainable harvesting, and more.
What about possible solutions? The Southwest (Colorado) Equitable Land Access Project (SELA), working primarily in two counties, has been researching options in creative, collaborative land access for 18 months, conducting conversations with experts as well as listening to the wider community. This collaboration came together through the efforts of three anchor organizations—the Montezuma Land Conservancy, Cortez, the La Plata Open Space Conservancy, Durango, and the Old Fort/Farmer Training Program of Fort Lewis College, Durango. Facilitators and other community members, along with representatives of two Ute tribal organizations (Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute) and the Navajo Nation, are deeply involved. I am honored to be part of this collaborative effort, both as an independent consultant and through my work with the Cooperative Development Center of RMFU.
During the first half of 2023, SELA conducted semi-structured and inclusive sessions in communities of the two counties. These discussions delved into land-access barriers, visions, and specific ideas of community members. At the same time, the working group in Montezuma and La Plata counties has been interviewing people who are using and living creative models around the US.
The overall result of this outreach and research phase has been a much richer picture of needs, hopes and plans. Further, the SELA working group has learned that far more people than we first realized are hungry for collaborative and cooperative solutions but don’t necessarily know where to start or how to contact others with similar interests and aspirations. Even more, we have found eagerness on the part of individuals and groups to engage with others with whom they wouldn’t ordinarily know: to build bridges across otherwise separate groups and communities. SELA is now moving into a project development phase, building on all that has been learned.
The principal land access models are depicted in the infographic handout above, created by the SELA’s working group. One model is the “agrarian commons,” developed by the Agrarian Trust of New England.
There are now more than a dozen of commons scattered across different regions of the US. They involve perpetual leases of tracts of land for agriculture, conservation and sometimes housing. The Trust establishes a 501(c)2 nonprofit to hold title to the land. These initiatives revive the ancient idea of a commons but place it in a network of support structures and sharing of resources with other commons initiatives. The model is designed, ultimately, to give autonomy to the commons membership while freeing them from financial responsibility of land ownership and all that entails. Members maintain their own businesses; some may live on the farm.
Another model that is still not widely known but familiar to the greater RMFU community is a worker-owned cooperative farm. In these initiatives, which are also found around the country, ownership is held in common by all members. The cooperative is also governed by members, even if it is incorporated in another form (often an LLC). Individuals or households invest in the enterprise, receive what are called “patronage dividends” along with agreed-upon wages, and have direct influence in shaping the direction of the enterprise. (See this article on the structures and practices of worker cooperatives: Worker Cooperatives: The Democratic Business Option Hidden in Plain Sight. This model, too, may include housing, at least for some members. An example that has garnered a great deal of media attention is the Love is Love Cooperative Farm in Mansfield, Georgia.
What is called the “buy-protect-sell” model is commonly guided by a land trust, which could have an urban, rural, or wider field of work (see infographic). These initiatives usually involve long-term leases; they also can lead to purchases of land by individuals, groups, or communities. In this way, there can be steps towards the relative autonomy of a group or newly formed organization. Multiple goals can be pursued with these initiatives as well: including farming/gardening spaces for a variety of ethnic groups, CSAs, therapy and medicinal gardens, and areas devoted to children. Groundswell Conservancy, in Madison, Wisconsin, embodies this multi-dimensional approach, and they are contemplating the incubation of worker cooperatives.
As the beginning of this article suggested, everyone has a great deal to learn from Indigenous experiences and knowledge. The Dishgamu-Humboldt Community Land Trust, in Eureka, California, is grounded in reclamation, restoration, and a holistic approach to people and land (see infographic 4). Dishgamu means love in the Wiyot language. With the first non-mandated return of land to tribal sovereignty in the US, the Wiyot Tribe has assumed stewardship of overused and degraded areas in and around Eureka, forged partnerships with other organizations, revived sacred ceremonies, and is now educating people in the wider region not only about tribal culture and traditions but also about sustainable land use practices.
All four of these models have important lessons grounded in experience as well as inspiring yet realistic forms of collaboration. Every one of the models, whether they have elements incorporated as cooperatives or not, features cooperative principles and practices. In fact, one can find commitments to the entire set of cooperative principles in these cases: the established Cooperative Principles.
One size does not fit all, where equitable land access is concerned. A wide array of organizational, legal, and financial structures is possible. Obviously, geography, climate, and physical resources are important determinants as well. Also consider hybrid forms that fit the needs of specific groups and communities. For example, there is a growing number of models that combine elements of commons and co-ops, including affordable housing as well as conservation and land access for other purposes. Another creative avenue is land sharing, as evidenced by the Traditional Harvest program, a project of the Montezuma Land Conservancy, where partnerships are established between an array of landowners, and the Ute Mountain Tribe to increase access to land for cultural purposes (see Traditional Harvest).
Alongside these models, cooperative innovations such as equipment/tool libraries and the integration of mobile farm workforces (which may themselves be organized as worker co-ops) are possible.
For small farms and new farmers, for ranches in transition, and for those interested in pioneering new forms of land sharing, these models and cases provide important sources of hope as well as pathways for support, stability, and prosperity.
Note: This article relies on material from previous newspaper articles by the author and in collaboration with Sally Planalp, his partner. An entire series on this topic is being published in the Four Corners Free Press (Cortez, Colorado).