Monday, November 1, 2010

Urban Food Forests in South Florida

Community FoodWorks is a program focused on training and supporting beginning farmers in South Florida to establish a network of viable, small, urban food forests, obtaining affordable access to land and establishing their own small farm businesses. Funded by a three-year grant from the US Department of Agriculture, Community FoodWorks will develop individual business enterprises to advance the goal of establishing a just and sustainable local food system benefitting communities throughout this region of 5.4 million people. Community FoodWorks projects and businesses produce, process, market, and distribute a rich diversity of fresh, naturally-grown subtropical fruits, winter vegetables, and other farm products.

The amazing network of local food enthusiasts and activists, business owners, farms, and community gardens, and educators in the Miami area provide the Social Capital needed to leverage the financial capital of the grant. Community FoodWorks partners including Florida International University's AgroEcology program, the Farmworkers' Association of Florida, and the Miami Workers' Center are co-creating programs, opportunities, and entrepreneurial experiences for a large number of apprentices from diverse backgrounds.

Community FoodWorks is designed to carry out three main Action Steps:

  • Recruit a broad network of students, unemployed and underemployed residents, and Latino farmers to gain job skills and experience as paid Apprentices, and to gain support in accessing land and establishing their own farms or local foods businesses.

  • Train Apprentices through the establishment of a network of subtropical food forests, and processing, marketing, and distributing authentic, fresh, healthy, local farm products through a variety of outlets, including the South Miami Farmers' Market.

  • Increase farmland access and ownership, focusing specifically on "infill agriculture" on underutilized land, using strategies such as long-term equitable leases and non-profit land trusts.

The Community FoodWorks mission is to develop the people and infrastructure needed to establish a just, sustainable, local food system for South Florida, and provide a model for urban food producation throughout the US and the Global South.

For more information, see the Earth Learning website (, and contact Mario Yanez at, or David Harper at

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Land Access for Mountain Farmers

Farmer-owned distribution cooperatives are integral to the future of sustainable agriculture in Western North Carolina

Western North Carolina's local food culture is vibrant and growing. Its land prices are also growing, especially for decent farmland. The average age of farmers in the region is growing as well - just crossing the 62 year old threshold.

The Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project's Local Food Guide ( is a veritable "who's who" of local agriculture in the region - with 350 farms and 58 farmers markets selling everything from microgreens to giant organic pumpkins. Sustainable Agriculture programs at Warren Wilson College near Asheville and Appalachian State University near Boone are training and graduating dozens of young people each year with hands-on experience in building chicken tractors, managing organic apple orchards, butchering heirloom hogs, and selling farm products.

So why is it that some of the most respected sustainable farmers in Western North Carolina, men and women with many years of experience in running family farms, frequently express their concern for the future of farming in the region? Prohibitive land prices and the high costs of starting a farm are on their minds, and how these realities are keeping too many people from going into agriculture as a vocation and a viable way of life. These factors are also on the minds of beginning farmers, who often work as interns or apprentices while facing the daunting challenge of finding land and starting their own farm. These forces are playing out in the same Southern Appalachian region where generations of residents have run small farms producing food for home and local consumption.

If we do the math in places like Asheville or Brevard or Boone, where the demand for "local" foods is seemingly insatiable, and "local" farms may sell anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 or more an acre, the land is too expensive to pay for through farming. What farmer can sell 750 bags of arugula at $4 apiece every 30 days to pay a $3,000 a month mortgage? Or 1,000 dozen free range eggs, or 500 $6 wheels of goat cheese. How many pints of "beyond organic" cherries?

It's clear that new options are needed for beginning farmers gain affordable access to land where they can live and grow food. Unless you inherit it, or marry into it, you've got to make the numbers work. It's also clear that retiring farmers need options -- more often than not, the family farm is the main asset farmers count on for their retirement. If the American Farmland Trust estimate is true, that 70% of all privately owned rural land in America will be changing hands in the next 10 - 15 years, then we have a HUGE opportunity in front of us to address farm transition in ways that benefit retiring farmers, beginning farmers, and the resiliency of sustainable local economies.

Community farm trusts and farm lease brokerages can provide alternatives to the sale and development of prime farmland close to growing markets for local foods

What if there was an entity to truly serve as a bridge between the beginning farmer and the retiring farmer? Or between the absentee investor landowner and the beginning farmer? What kind of organization would that be and how would it function?

  • It would need to be the kind of organization that could sit at the kitchen table with the retiring farmer and hear their story and their needs. And it would need to be the kind of organization that could sit at the kitchen table with the beginning farmer and hear their story and their needs.
  • It could be a non-profit/for-profit hybrid organization combining the benefits of a community farmland trust and a farm lease brokerage.
  • This organization could be capable of negotiating equitable farm leases that benefit both parties. It could secure slow money/social venture capital to invest in purchasing farmland at fair prices and leasing that land to beginning farmers.
  • It could secure grant funding from private and public sources to hold farmland in trust by and for the community.
  • It could enter into flexible lease-purchase arrangements to balance the needs of retiring farmers who want to see their legacy of their farms continue on, and with beginning farmers who want to grow that legacy for the future.
These are the options that Land In Common is focusing on -- building those relationships, and finding those strategies that create the space where farm transition and legacy meets land access and opportunity, and where Southern Appalachian communities grow more vibrant.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

School of Living: Common Ground for Earth-Connected Living

Berry picking at Ahimsa Village Summer Camp, part of a 323 acre community land trust holding in central Pennsylvania.

Owner-built cordwood home and shoemaker's workshop at Common Ground community, an 80-acre community land trust holding in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

The School of Living began during the Great Depression on 40 acres of commonly-owned land in Suffern, New York, as a center for teaching homesteading skills to people seeking alternatives to the industrial economy. Founder Ralph Borsodi and partner Mildred Loomis shared a vision that families and communities could take greater responsibility for healthy living if they could afford access to the land and its bountiful resources. Over the past 75 years, the School of Living has evolved into a regional community land trust and educational organization that has acquired over 600 acres of land on 5 sites in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. The founders and current members believe that land is a Commonwealth which none of us truly own, and they are putting this belief into practice by ensuring that the land is held in trust as a community asset worthy of careful stewardship, not a commodity for private speculation and exploitation.

Residents living on the land have created their own affordable, naturally-built homes, grow much of their own food, and cut firewood and lumber for use in the communities. They regularly host workshops and events open to all, ranging from permaculture design and natural building to yoga and compassionate communication. As a community land trust, residents build and own their own homes (often without mortgages), and pay an affordable ground lease to the School of Living, which owns the common land. The lease extends for 99 years, and is renewable and inheritable, so residents benefit from rich forests, fields, streams, wetlands and groundwater without having to purchase them.

As it embarks on its next 75 years, the School of Living will continue its valuable work to educate and assist people in living close to the Earth and establishing decentralized, ecologically-sound, self-governed and humane communities (

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Cornucopia: Durham's Urban Agriculture Land Trust

Cornucopia co-founders visit urban agriculture sites in Durham

Cornucopia is forming as a 501c(3) non-profit community land trust for the purpose of acquiring and maintaining a secure land base for affordable food production in Durham, North Carolina. Cornucopia is being created by and for local food activists, community organizers, and residents of food-insecure neighborhoods. Durham, recently nominated "the Foodiest Small Town in America" (Bon Apetite, October 2008) still has many neighborhoods considered urban food deserts, where convenience stores selling unhealthy processed foods prevail, and grocery stores and farmers markets are not available. Many of these same neighborhoods have a history of earlier generations of residents sharing food from abundant backyard gardens, though these skills are being lost.

Cornucopia will strategically identify vacant lots in food-insecure neighborhoods that can serve as community gardens, urban farms, greenhouses, and composting facilities, then negotiate with owners to take these lots permanently off the speculative market. This is an essential step in a community where low- to moderate-income neighborhoods suffering from years of disinvestment are now being impacted by gentrification and real estate speculation.

Started as a project of Community Wholeness Venture (, a Durham-based leadership development organization, Cornucopia will take on a life of its own as a community-based landholding organization with a Board of Trustees representing the community. The project is funded by a grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, and has been supported by the work of edible landscaping collective Bountiful Backyards ( and Land In Common (, which focuses on community-based land conservation. Partners such as the educational gardening organization SEEDS (, Durham Urban Green Space and others are working together to launch Cornucopia.

Food security requires land security. Cornucopia is focused on defining what land security and food security mean for Durham as the community reinvents its downtown as a former hub for the tobacco industry. New York City nearly lost 114 of its community gardens when Mayor Giuliani proposed to auction them off in 1999 -- these gardens were purchased at the day before the auction by a team of investors including the Trust for Public Land and Bette Midler. Today they are held in a series of New York City Garden Land trusts including the Manhattan Land Trust, Bronx Land Trust, Brooklyn/Queens Land Trust( The 14-acre South Central Farm in Los Angeles, the largest urban farm in the nation with over 350 plots maintained by mostly Latino gardeners, was set aside for the community by Mayor Tom Bradley after the 1992 riots, but was sold for $5 million by the City in 2006 and bulldozed under police protection by a developer seeking to build a warehouse (yet unbuilt).

Cornucopia will serve as the first urban agriculture land trust in North Carolina and the Southeast, providing a model for other cities to follow. Durham City/County's recently completed Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Plan notes that the city is becoming a hub for urban agriculture projects that can become a training destination for the state and the region. The land trust is being modeled after successful examples from New York City, Philadelphia's Neighborhood Gardens Association (, and Providence, Rhode Island's Southside Community Land Trust ( Land In Common is partnering with Earth Learning ( to form the Miami Urban Farm Trust to serve the 4th largest city in the nation, and one of the poorest, in the Greater Everglades bioregion of South Florida. In each of these cases, communities are forming thriving land trusts to ensure that urban farms and community gardens remain as long-term community assets benefiting generations of residents, rather than as developable parcels considered to be mere short-term commodities benefiting investors.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

We're All Commonwealthy

All 31 acres of Troy Gardens are owned as a commons. Affordable co-housing is on the lower right, community gardens are on the lower left, the CSA farm is in the upper right, and native prairie/woodlands in the upper left. (Source: Madison Area Community Land Trust)

In Madison, Wisconsin, Troy Gardens is a shining example of the vital role that community land trusts can play in taking land off the speculative market and holding it in trust for community a Commonwealth...and avoiding the fate of unsecured community assets such as South Central Farm.

What started as a struggle to maintain community garden plots threatened by the sale of State-owned land in the mid-1990’s has blossomed into a leading example of green urban design incorporating affordable housing, food security, and community-based land tenure. Greg Rosenberg, Executive Director of the Madison Area Community Land Trust, describes the 31-acre site as a community asset combining:
- 30 green-designed, affordable, privately-owned homes in a cohousing community on 5 acres (16%) of the land with its own stop on the city bus line to downtown Madison
- 26 acres (84%) of the land devoted to urban agriculture, including: over 200 community garden plots for neighborhood residents; a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm with a farm stand and educational programs for school children; and native prairie and woodland edges with extensive edible landscape plantings.

Homeowners at Troy Gardens pay an affordable ground lease on the common land, which benefits them and the surrounding neighborhoods. The Land Trust holds title to all of the land, and a separate conservation land trust holds a conservation easement protecting the open land from future development. Any urban or rural area can benefit in this way by creating a Community Land Trust. (

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Who Owns the Commonwealth?

Boys watch through a fence as South Central Farm is bulldozed
(Source: Los Angeles Independent Media Center)

In cities across the United States, Urban Agriculture Land Trusts are forming to secure land as a community asset for food production, rather than simply a commodity for speculation. The tragic story of South Central Farm in Los Angeles illustrates why land security is such an essential step toward true community food security.

South Central Farm was a place of safety, community, and abundance. Elders told stories about their homelands and taught others to nurture crops, and parents sang folk songs by the fire while children played hide-and-seek between rows of heirloom corn. Located in the South Central neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, South Central Farm was once the largest urban agriculture site in the U.S.A. At its peak, the 14-acre tract was home to an estimated 350 garden plots providing food, flowers, and solace––primarily for Latino families with indigenous roots in North America and Central America. It was one of those rare places where the ancient cultural identity and wisdom of hundreds of varieties of medicinal and nutritional plants, carefully-selected heirloom seeds and fruit trees was celebrated and passed on to the next generation. For over a decade, the farm was an oasis of living soil, edible biomass and biodiversity amidst a cityscape of warehouses, parking lots, weeds and dead dirt.

South Central Farm was located on vacant land offered by the Mayor of Los Angeles to the L.A. Regional Food Bank to use as a community garden that would help heal the wounds of the 1992 riots. But 14 years later it became all too clear that this community asset was not secure. The City of Los Angeles owned the land, and the City Council saw it not as a public park, but prime light-industrial real estate it could sell to generate income. In 2006, following days of protests by urban agriculture activists, gardeners and a cadre of Hollywood stars, the City evicted the gardeners to make way for a warehouse. A phalanx of police in riot gear cleared the way for bulldozers that leveled the urban farm. Four years later, the warehouse has yet to be built, and South Central Farmers is holding annual encampments to reclaim the land as a commons. The Garden, a 2008 documentary film about the farm, received an Academy Award nomination (