How Land Tenure Standards Prevent Better Agriculture

February 5, 2015

Elias Kohn

by guest author Elias Kohn, F&ES ‘16

If agroforestry provides so many potential environmental and social benefits, why isn’t it more common?
Conversations with agroforestry researchers and growers seem to suggest that lacking long term access to the land, what we can refer to as secure land tenure, prevents greater implementation.
Roughly 40 percent of farmland in the US is rented or leased and “it is a lot harder to implement agroforestry practices if you are leasing the land,”Kate MacFarland of the USDA National Agroforestry Center told me. Without an amendable landlord, farming with trees and perennials is a challenge. It is therefore important to understand how renting land can impact land management decisions, and whether there are any best practices for establishing successful agroforestry practices on rented land.                       
My own experience renting a residential unit in South Los Angeles and attempting to install a small agroforestry design helps illustrate these challenges. With two freeways visible from the driveway and neighboring a gas station, I was excited to see my coffeeberry bush, elderberries, yuccas and a white oak seedling add some color to the nearly constant backdrop of concrete and asphalt. Greywater from my sinks and showers irrigated all the plants that were growing great. When I added worm composting and a small aquaponics system (pictured at left) with tilapia and minnows, my attachment to the whole system grew even more.
One day I hurried home to check on everything, only to find that the landlord’s landscapers had ripped apart my work. Verbal permission from the landlord to grow a garden did not matter. Once the disappointment wore off, I was fascinated that the landscapers left all the small annual crops, but killed every native and perennial tree and shrub, the ones that provide greater environmental services and form the foundation of more resilient and longer term agriculture systems.
Was it a coincidence? Maybe, but strikingly similar scenarios occurred in multiple locations for me. Perhaps the short-term and high input agriculture/landscaping model is somehow deeply embedded in the public consciousness. The traditional model is also promoted through policies that dictate what is appropriate to grow on rented land or in a communal garden space.
It might be a leap to compare my experience to the land tenure challenges of large-scale agroforestry systems, but the notion that land use policies undervalue long-term agriculture and agroforestry is a common story.
Travel a few miles down the road from that rental unit in Los Angeles to the site of the former South Central Farm, for example. At one time this was the largest urban garden in the US, packed full of fruit trees and edible perennials that provided food for around 350 families. After the city sold the property to a real estate developer, uninterested in promoting urban food systems, LAPD bulldozed the farm in 2006. Without a guarantee, or even a favorable chance of having the ability to make decisions for a land base beyond a few growing seasons, it is high risk developing crops that provide long term benefits but require higher initial expense, such as fruit and nut trees.
Many food growers and agroforestry proponents still take the risk, understanding the social and ecological benefits of climate smart tree farming. Ben Lawson (pictured at right), a brilliant permaculture designer and emergency/disaster preparedness instructor living in Oregon, lost projects in
 multiple locations because he did not own the land. After months of investing in a project, ownership of the land changed. New landlords held different visions for the property that did not involve food production or land rehabilitation through tree cover. Ben reflects that:
“The sad irony of being a permaculture designer is that so much use of the modernized landscape is temporary. Renters are confined to container gardening. Community gardens are a great model, yet are often at risk of redevelopment…the transient nature of the real estate industry makes long-term investment in establishing productive perennials and tree backyard food crops a marginal practice.”
Logan Sander, a natural builder and Master of Forestry Candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies explored land tenure and farming practices on fifty five farms and yards in Jamaica last summer. While his data analysis is still pending, his hypothesis is that successful agroforestry practices increase with land security.
“The idea is that as tenure is more secure, farmers are going to be planting more edible forestry tree crops and timber crops. Agroforestry elements will be stronger and move away from fast crops.”
While researching in Jamaica, Logan noticed that farmers with more secure land tenure planted long term timber trees among shorter-term crops. They considered this tree growth a safety net or retirement plan for future needs. On the other hand, Logan met farmers interested in agroforestry unable to pursue the practice because, as they explained, they would “have to wait for years and this is not our land.” From his research, Logan witnessed agroforestry implementation obstructed by lack of secure rights to the land.
Ruth Metzel, a teaching assistant for an agroforestry class and former intern at the World Agroforestry Center in Nairobi witnessed similar issues regarding land ownership policies: “Unstable land tenure can be a huge obstacle to practicing agroforestry, because in many cases, as in Costa Rica and Panama, governments have encouraged land clearing in the past in order to demonstrate possessory rights. When farmers and landowners must “prove” that they work the land through creating a clear distinction between their land in productive use and native ecosystems, agroforestry suffers precisely because at an initial glance it blurs the line between field and forest.”
Perhaps it is that blurred line between a more “natural” state of a forest and the controlled grid layout of conventional agriculture that was unappealing to the landlord in Los Angeles that removed the trees and native shrubs but left the tomatoes and lettuce greens. Aversion to blurring the distinction between domesticate and wild may explain some of the challenges agroforestry proponents face.
Many policies prevent wider promotion of agroforestry systems, but a few current policies may start to change that trend. I will briefly explore these trends and policies in next week’s post.
A warm thanks to Kate MacFarland, Ben Lawson, Logan Sander and Ruth Metzel for their interviews.