Landing on Land
Landing on land?

Landing on Land?

by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch

Thirty years ago a realtor made a significant offer to purchase our farmland. We said, “No thanks.” He said, “My offer stands and you WILL sell to me eventually because you cannot afford to stay here. You will sell me your land and then buy something else, and then sell that. It’s the way the world works. You cannot change that.”

That realtor has passed on. We are still here and these days, decades later, working to understand how we might continue to be here long after we are gone. We stay where we choose to stay by creating our own definitions of continuity, affordability and success. We are blessed to have limited outside influence over our decisions with our farming and its future. We know that what we have and hold dear is because of our long held, clear notions of value.

We came first without inherited money or assets. We came with experience, tools and a small earned nest egg, plus something more. We believed, and still do, that we inherited from our grandparents and parents certain values and outlooks, certain expectations and cautions. These have most always informed our choices. And knowing which way to turn and what to work on, those are the secrets to success. Knowing what to choose. We brought this knowledge with us.

Choice is an odd notion. The world is so complex and contradictory today. Humanity now has its losing gambit with nature as she dishes up the ‘great correction’ with a procession of environmental catastrophies. And wider society is made up of developed nations struggling to deal with social inversions pitting brother against brother in ludicrous deadly dare-to-blink ‘chicken’ fights. Human kind has wealthy nations punishing the rest of the world through inflation – deflation, pandemics – starvation, war and governmental connivery. And beneath it, all of us inherit today’s wholesale destruction of biological diversity, oceanic balance, soil health, forest health, and human spirituality. Some would say it is just too much to concern ourselves with.

So, no need to worry about farmland, many of the social engineers argue, since there’s nothing anyone can do about it and it will take care of itself.

Such notions are terribly short-sighted. Farmland needs to be protected as the vital finite resource that it is, otherwise it is lost for generations or longer. And then there are those of us, jumping a little ahead, who understand that a massive back to the land movement, especially in third world countries, is one thing that may well help to heal many of the world’s ills. Such a movement requires any and all available farmland, whether that be plots or fields, planter boxes or hillsides.

Most of the people on the planet live in congested cities. It has been happening for centuries but most recently accelerating. Government policies have driven hundreds of millions of small farmers off their farmland plots and into cities, either that or they were enticed to migrate with false promise of better lives; the mass of people hoodwinked, hundreds of millions of people stripped of choice. Hundreds of millions of people who would, if they could, care deeply for a plot of ground where they could grow food, fiber, fuel and top soil, year after year after year.

The young man said: Realtors don’t want to talk to us. They don’t want to allow us to decide if this or that farm is something we might be able to afford. If we drove up in a new BMW or had a secretary call for information or hired a broker to talk brokerese – maybe then? Sometimes I think it isn’t about looking poor, its about projecting ourselves as they want to see us. “Now, he was well spoken and she knew what she wanted.” Acting 101?

The only way to get there from here is at a wandering diagonal.

This essay is not about me having an answer or answers and trying to put them into words, to share them with you. This essay is about shaking some ancient marked stones in my closed hands and tossing them across the table, time after time, in hopes that some of us jump in with useful interpretations, new cautions, pained observations, glimmers. I’m throwing stuff out there in hopes that some of you will respond, even if in anger, and a process can get going where we tease ideas until something insightful or usefully new comes of it.

Landing on land?
Singing Horse Ranch, pastel , Lynn R. Miller

In the mid-eighties, when I approached a local realtor and described the farmland I was looking for, I was told, “People don’t farm around here because the land is too valuable for development. Notice these nice homes? The two golf courses? Successful people choose to retire here to be near other successful retirees. To find you what are looking for I suggest further east or Idaho.”

He was wrong, we found the land we were looking for on the outside edge of here. It was abandoned, belonged to a bank 150 miles away, and only accessible by an unmaintained goat trail. Shortly after we purchased the land, a gravel road was punched through to town and that realtor was quick to remark, only reason you got that place is because you were lucky.

Sometimes we feel the opposite, like we were unlucky that they punched the road through. If there were no road to the south, to town, we’d go the long way north when we could and we’d be happy as dumb farmers, on our own forgotten piece of ground. But the ooze of ‘better people,’ those with capital gains to place, they are finding the backwoods today only slowed of recent by exorbitant fuel prices and freshly decorated fears of the unknown.

Farmers need to be working together to protect their lands from becoming bargaining chips, levers, or transferable assets. Perhaps the way to do that is to remove ownership of the land as an option. To boldly imagine what it might mean that all farmlands be established as a sacred trust and that residency and operation of those lands move to an inheritable lease form with only the charted capital improvements, the buildings, orchards, fences, and of course the livestock and crops, belonging in deed form to the leasors. The lease of such lands to be ‘proven’ by maintaining and improving the land in the best ways known. In other words, the lease would fall into default IF no suitable, beneficial work was done on the land. Defaulted lands would then be deemed available for a new homestead lease application.*

*In such a plan, non-profit land trusts would not be eligible for any piece of the action. Their stated purposes and recent histories demonstrate that they are most often in direct competition with right livelihoods, actual farming and wildlife protection.

Is farmland a resource, a finite resource? And as such is it something to ‘dig’ up, to ‘burn’ up, to ‘use’ up? Or is farmland an encroachment designation which cries out to be stripped from any equation, be it for public set-aside or development? Do you here the voice screaming “it’s all just land!”

Over the last twenty plus years some folks, with a goal of protecting farmland from development, have used deed covenants to protect that land in perpetuity. On the surface, it seems like an attractive idea. But recent non-profit hi-jinks and clever lawyering have turned the covenant restrictions to the profitable advantage of owners, developers, realtors and banks. For fear that too much information would arm realtors and banks, suffice it to say that a deed restriction that says land may not be subdivided and/or developed does not protect that land FOR farming. In recent years tremendous profits have been garnered by assuring that the designated protected land be held in some sort of phony short term trust as “open ‘green’ space” accessible primarily to the donors of said organizations. Imagine then the increase of value in adjoining lands for development?

Landing on land?
“Lubricant Storm, Crane Prairie,” oil on canvas, Lynn R. Miller

Farmland; land suitable to farm, land with a history of farming, land that’s way out there, rough raw land which whispers – ‘if you are diligent, caring and creative you can farm here,’ land with its nose in the air as if to say ‘here there has been tremendous farming success,’ land which asks are you up to my challenges?

<> abandoned lands <> lands without address

<> lands with concealed problems <> lands without character

<> barren lands but with loads of character

<> lands on water, with water, and holding water

<> farmlands which buffer

<> land that wishes to remain soft, quiet, dry desert with sugarly rodent and insect trails framing the lenient shadows, land only a priest should farm

<> land with wide strong shoulders

<> land that has been loved, held, and kissed

<> land which holds the secret deposits of minerals so fired up that they add depth to the colors of the squash grown there

<> land which coos under a full moon and flutters with the dawn

<> land which wears its plantations in great good comfort

<> land which teases each night’s river of frost to a different telling, whiteribboned morning pattern

<> land which welcomes the lurid, the calloused, the fanciful, the romantic, the scientist

<> land which ought to still be farmland but which has been sterilized by industrial chemicals and heavy-handed tillage practices to the point where it is a barren stretch of emptiness,

<> good land which is smack dab up against, or surrounded by lots and lots of people who want to buy local farm produce,

<> other land so remote from customers that farming seems to require an untenable stretch of the imagination,

<> suitable idle lands controlled by absentee ownership or held in long term abeyance or escrow,

<> land with no neighbors,

<> land in the midst of a thriving community of small holders,

<> good land forfeited for back taxes,

<> the best land somehow left behind, intestate, when old folks, good farmers with no heirs, finally passed on,

<> attractive land in the death grip of banks, processing plants, unscrupulous nonprofits, plus state and federal governments.

Landing on land?
Vincent Van Gogh, a painter who saw the evidence of farmland for poetry.

Farmland: who owns it? Who has an opportunity to acquire it, who is devoted to its care and increased fertility, who wants more of it for portfolio padding, who fights to protect it, who misunderstands its significance, who sees it as a place for development of housing and commercial buildings, who counts on it as levered trading stock, who sees it as an obstacle, who sees the ownership of it as a ridiculous transitory notion?

Those of us who are fortunate enough to own farmland and feel farming as a calling, understand implicitly how valuable our ‘landing pad’ is. We also may struggle from time to time feeling threatened that others do not share our valuation, even finding our measure of the land to be at odds with society’s.

“What did you have to give for your farm?” On the surface, it may seem like an innocent enough question, but down deep where it counts it’s offensive in its implication. Is this just my observation? Yes, that’s all that it is.

The dollar purchase price of a place to farm is constantly in competition with the parking lot value of farm land. I don’t mean as in literally paved car-parking surfaces, but rather as in deeds of record used to ‘park’ or even ‘launder’ money. That parking lot value is just as far ‘out there’ in Lala Land as any crypto form of currency. And those dollars, imagined and actual, they do not want to be included in the most basic of discussions, those that include how do good, well intentioned, hardworking people ever find themselves in a position to be able to “afford” a farm of their own.

“We’re going to farm this piece of land, care for it, grow its fertility, protect its character and biodiversity. We are here to live on this land and with it. We aren’t here to flip this over for a tidy profit.” So long as flipping is possible and legal, it may be hard to prevent it from happening, especially when we are gone. The capitalist notion, in banking and commerce circles, that land is a commodity best unfettered, is a notion we find vulgar and environmentally destructive.

It’s that can of worms identified by the question: ‘who decides highest and best use of land?’

Farmland values are going through the roof and inflation is one reason why. There’s a land rush going on right now. Only this time around it isn’t a level playing field of families in wagons racing against each other across prairies to spy their spot – jump off – drive stakes in the ground, and then race back to the assayers’ offices. Nope, this time the land rush is a proxy war, not as in proxies battling but as in companies and wealthy individuals hiring agents, attorneys, realtors, bankers, and mortgage brokers to act as their proxy; to find junks of farmland, tie them up in legal options, scoop them up and convert them to legal documents for investment portfolios. The pieces of farmland aren’t important, not in and of themselves, they are chips or tokens to investors, they are mediums of exchange. The investors and investment companies do not understand the character, history or possibilities of these land stocks – they don’t care to know. They do not want to be troubled by what it means to reduce or destroy the ageless fertility and productivity of these lands. They don’t want to see the connections between their insistence on profit and people going hungry.

To them a capital economy is primary, it is sacrosanct. After all, would you rather have X amount of money on deposit when inflation reduces the value of those dollars day after day, or the same valuation ‘parked’ on land which is likely going up in value, especially over the long haul? And that stuff, those finaglings, those ‘arrangements,’ those instruments, those portfolios all generate income for brokers, lenders, title companies, property managers, realtors, lawyers, and more.

Where does that leave the little guys? Those who want land so that they might farm? Can we turn that around for a minute? Can we ask where does that leave those who want to farm, who want to caretake land. I would like to suggest it might leave them in the catbird seat, in a position of increasing worth. Because those absentee landowners need property managers, caretakers or, a case can be made, that they REALLY need people who are willing and able to farm that land in the best way possible. In this country we want and need to feel that, if we have followed the “rules’ of ownership, laws protect our ownership. A handful of us also want to believe that ‘farming’ carries with it a highest and best use designation protected by law. But today we must ask, does it? It does not.

What about those of “us” who do not own the rights to farm a piece of land. In this country there is a long history of paradox and contradiction when it comes to land access, to land acquisition and ownership, to permissable practices on that land. Over the last fifty years involved with farming and farm activism we have witnessed important changes in farming approaches and primacies; from the large-scale benefical shift to natural or organic practices to the movement towards locally produced and distributed foods, from arguments about land reform and right to farm laws. But the law of the land, scattershot that it is, has not begun to catch up with public discernment.

Landing on land?
Grain field, Singing Horse Ranch, photo by author.

The conflicting values of money, farmland, farm work, farm production, access to borrowed capital in farming circles, protection from usurious lending, beg of us to stop the train, count the cars, and come up with a plan.

Nothing new here. For over half a century there have been legitimate concerns about the preservation of farmland, protecting it from development. All manner of investment attitudes and realities have peppered the subject. Trends upon trends. And now in my limited view I see contradictory patterns that are either more insidious or more advantageous or both. We could lose a lot of ground in a hurry or perhaps find vast new opportunities, additional land we didn’t know was out there. Idle farmland, most of us know what that means, what that looks like. We drive by it perhaps wondering what’s happening. What if most of that land came up available for long term protected farming lease? What if banks, corporations, Bill Gates, and all the other people ‘parking’ their money on the best land and then making zero allowances for how it is to be farmed today and tomorrow, what if they had their options both limited and protected by a whole new approach to absentee ownership of farmland?

Though vital and critical, the farmland subject, its policies, and the consequences it draws forward, are boring for many folks. There are millions of people worldwide who want to farm and are having difficulty getting a toehold on land. They don’t want to talk about it, they want something to open up.

It comes down to this one essential question: who’s to own the farmland? The public, absentee investors or actual farmers. The answer is not going to be easy or necessarily preferred by most of us. Perhaps the best we can hope for is a bunch of ‘rent controlled’ farming on farmlands held in perpetuity within family estates. I think for most of those millions IF they had a chance at a secure footing on land they could farm, they would make it work. Even if they could not OWN that land outright. Even if the best they could get was a protected lifetime lease. Most of the farmland in America is not owned outright by the resident farmers, it is owned by mortgage holders, it is ‘owned’ by banks. What those farmers have is the “illusion” that someday they might own the land outright, and if not that, at the least they could, when they tire, sell their equity in that land at a handsome profit(?). There is a great deal of productive farmland in the developed world that can be rented or leased for less than what lenders expect in mortgage payments from a farming buyer. Rent amounts customarily have some linkage to the production expectations. Mortgage payments are governed by the contract term or length of time and the interest rate written into said contract. Twenty and thirty year mortgages are frequently ‘rolled over’ or rewritten so that farm families find they are on the ‘hook’ for generations.

For this idea of protected tenant farming to work I believe it would require rigorous preservation statutes that protected the land, in any event, from ever being anything but farmland. Yes, such an approach would take a lot of the land value volatility out of the equation – and subsequently it would strip wealthy entities of their rationale to ‘park’ their money on these deeds. But the whole of humanity, and certainly the planet itself would be the beneficiary.

Landing on land?
Domaine Pouillon vineyard, Lyle, Washington.

Meanwhile, way too much talk, how do we open things up right now?

As flippant as it may sound, for some of us or you, access to land may come down to being ready for opportunity, being willing to stand in line with eyes wide open for a very long time. I was a farm hand and managed operations for absentee owners for years before I learned of an abandoned small dairy that the owner was willing to let me set up on with a stiff mortgage and no down payment. Following that I worked around the clock farming and anything else to make money. My beginning was that inglorious. Today, decades later, I realize that I had two things that served me very well, my youth and enthusiasm. Good people wanted to believe in me. These are intangibles that don’t show up in spread sheets, or enterprise data, or bank projections. But, just as with so many startup enterprises in other fields of endeavor, youth and enthusiasm are powerful. Old people know this. Young people don’t always know it, but they are certainly shaped by it.

Thirty years ago when that realtor said you can’t afford to keep this farm, what he meant was ‘farming’ won’t give you enough to keep this farm, especially as the land values continue to increase. He meant ‘everyone knows’ farmers live thread bare lives and that most of the time that new production credit loan or rewrite of your mortgage is all based on the security of future land values. He meant that when you follow the standard operating procedures of commercial farming it begins as a losing proposition and only gets more tenuous. What he didn’t know is that we had other plans, We found what works for us. Our farm belongs to forever. We, for now, are the only ones entitled to it. And our entitlement comes because we are fully invested in the care and preservation of this place, our landing.

True farming, without lien, is first about growing the soil and second about harmless gain, the sort that would absolve and refresh.

The secret? Find what works for you and nature.