May 7, 2012

The 2011 Farmland Commons Gathering Introduction

Reclaiming farmland as a commons

In the summer of 2011, On the Commons hosted a gathering for individuals and organizations to discuss how to reclaim farmland as a commons. The goal of the event was to question assumptions about current land management practices, to explore commons-based alternatives, and to learn from each other’s work.

Here at On The Commons, we believe that fostering a healthy relationship to the food we consume and the land we live on is central to a functioning commons-based society. Inspired in part by this belief, and by our conversations with commons animators Verna Kragnas, director of the Philadelphia Community Farm, and Robert Karp, founder of New Spirit Farmland Partnerships, in the summer of 2011 we decided to invite individuals and organizations from the local food and sustainable agriculture movements to join us in discussing how to reclaim farmland as a commons.

On the Commons felt it was essential to include individuals who represent a wide range of cultural and class experiences with respect to land, land ownership, and food at the gathering in June; and, with some luck, we gathered a highly diverse and engaging group. Our participants varied widely from wealthy investors to young, landless farmers, and from indigenous leaders to African Americans who have experienced land loss. In total, the gathering united 25 individuals representing 22 organizations, including RSF Social Finance, the Land Loss Prevention Project, the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, and more. (Here is a full list of participating organizations.)

Our gathering’s central focus lent itself to deep thinking about the role individuals and systems must play to help advance food and land related commons-based solutions at a local level. We focused on how we must first help foster direct, mutually supportive relationships among farmers, eaters, and businesses—every actor who participates in a local food scene. As a group, we also questioned the dominant notion of security, current and accepted models of investment as they relate to food and farmland, our connection to food and land in general, as well as how private property can be treated as a commons. Following a detailed agenda, our large facilitation team helped initiate a deep, yet extensive conversation about the future of farmland in an attempt to illuminate possible commons-based alternatives to our society’s prevailing thought and behavior toward land.

We hosted the gathering at a conference center along the Mississippi River just north of Minneapolis. As our intentions were to question assumptions, to explore commons-based alternatives, and to learn from one another, the setting and the gathering’s small size were deliberate choices—and they were, in fact, key to the relationship and trust building which occurred. Yet while the mood was generally convivial, there was a clear tension between those who wanted to arrive at concrete, detailed answers and those who wanted to continue exploring possible solutions for the future of farmland.

Despite this tension, together we arrived at a set of possible next steps, which you can find among our observations from the Farmland Commons Gathering, toward achieving our shared vision—to reclaim farmland as something that belongs to us all, a commons. And while those who attended the gathering aren’t currently working in collaboration, you can learn more about On the Common’s current work that was inspired by the Farmland Commons Gathering in our blogs called A Commons-Based Approach to Security and “Community Investment Strategies”: