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Pre-empt strategic land
Make viable farming units
The main tendency observed in Europe is to disinvest farmland. Local authorities allocate fewer resources to maintain existing estates and, frequently, decide to sell or lease out the land to the highest bidder. For example, in England, the amount of council-owned farmland has halved over the past 40 years from over 170,000 ha in 1977 down to 82,000 ha by 2020 (CPRE 2022). This calls into question larger contextual issues related to the lack of means of local authorities to realise more and more services or the fact that skyrocketing farmland prices make it particularly lucrative to sell public assets. With constrained means, some authorities may also prefer leasing public land to one large farm rather than working on making the land accessible to multiple small farmers.
In this context, investing in farmland is a difficult endeavour. Yet it is essential to fulfilling key policy goals (see manifesto) e.g. facing climate change, creating lively rural economies, providing access to quality food. This handbook provides a few possibilities and ideas to invest in public farmland.
Ideas for targeted investment include:
- Acquire strategic land. For instance, target land that can help consolidate an existing municipal farm, land that is threatened by urban development or by grabbing for corporate interests, land to create a green belt or green fabric, or land where specific farm biodiversity or risk management must be implemented (e.g. acquire land in water catchment areas where intensive farming causes water pollution issues).
- Consider (co-)acquisition. There may be ways to share costs by acquiring land together with other entities, like groupings of municipalities (see the section “synergies with other public owners” below). Sharing costs with the farmers is also an option (with legal advice on some aspects, e.g. how to compensate tenants for investments in the farm when the lease is up). Finally, some community land trusts have implemented co-acquisition strategies with local authorities (see the section “synergies with land organisations” below).
- Temporary acquisition. Acquiring land for a transitory period is another option. In land markets, available plots tend to go to the highest and fastest bidder. Temporary acquisition consists of mobilising public funds to bankroll the purchase of the land for a short period of time while looking for a suitable candidate to transfer back the land (new entrant, organic farmer, social project…).
Targeted investment is facilitated if local authorities have pre-emption rights over other buyers or can partner with land agencies that have market intervention power.
Beyond land acquisition, investments are needed to maintain viable estates and gear public farms towards providing public services. These can be modest and gradual, shared with tenants, or subsidised by the state, EU, as well as private financiers. If sustained in time, however, they will improve public returns, while decaying farm estates can become burdens for public owners.
Some interesting areas of investment in existing estates include:
- Investing in processing units (cheesemaking or canning labs, milling facilities, etc.) to add value to the farm production, help channel the production to short supply chains, and create additional jobs.
- Investing in adapted infrastructure or equipment for organic farming (e.g. composting units, parks for free-ranging animals, planting of insect-friendly flower hedges, etc.) to help meet biodiversity and carbon-storing goals, while also improving the landscape and consumer attractivity.
- Supporting the creation of a Farmstart or other incubator/training farm by providing small plots for new entrants to pilot businesses, alongside training and support. For example, OrganicLea in north London, UK, is a cooperative horticultural business on council land which is also a Farmstart site. Public land is used to run the programme, and local councils (Waltham Forest Council, Enfield Council, Haringey Council) are also involved in helping find plots for the OrganicLeas trainees when they are ready to move onto their own land.
Finally, investing time from staff in knowing and managing public assets can already unlock positive outcomes, by strengthening links and trust with tenant farmers, supporting them in overcoming difficulties, fomenting synergies between farmers and retailers or with consumers, and so on.
Good idea! Valorize your action
Local authorities can consider that the impact of keeping an estate in public hands and supporting sustainable, diversified, locally-oriented production is hardly quantifiable or too invisible in the short term to satisfy their constituents. This may deter them from orienting public budgets towards investment in farmland. Simple communication on impact is key, e.g. putting a sign on public farms to explain the services it renders to the population (“this public farm keeps your air and water clean”, “this public farm creates local jobs”), asking farmers to mention the origin of commercialised products (“grown on local public land”), getting the local press or channel to report on the farm...
Decreasing local governments' budgets are a reality across Europe. Our experience shows that many local authorities succeed in balancing financial pressure and wisely using their farmland to fulfill policy objectives. However, in some cases, there may be little choice but to sell public farmland. If authorities are not able to keep all their assets, they should nonetheless be accountable for how they sell them. Public land belongs to citizens; deciding on its future should entail transparency and giving priority to projects that will benefit the local community, rather than selling to the highest bidder and with no criteria. The price of the land should be set fairly and not contribute to speculative tendencies (see the box “Fixed price land sales in Wallonia”).
- Fixing prices and defining allocation criteria when selling public land
- A legal, yet seldom used, way to sell responsibly
The Walloon regional authorities (French-speaking part of Belgium) attributed funding to Terre-en-Vue to support public landowners – who own about 10% of the Walloon agricultural surface – in (re)making their land available to young farmers for sustainable and nourishing agriculture. The objective is to ensure that these landowners keep their land for rental. Nevertheless, in the context of various recent crises (covid, floods, energy...) and their impact on public finances, there is a strong temptation for public operators to sell their agricultural land holdings in order to balance their budgets. When the decision to sell is formally taken, Terre-en-Vue tries to ensure that the sale of this land:
1. does not contribute to speculation on agricultural land (there is no regulation relating to the price of land in Wallonia) by determining the sale price and not allocating it to the highest bidder
2. is directed either to other public owners or to farmers entering agriculture or having little land, by defining allocation criteria.
This mechanism, although legal, is not yet used by the public authorities. Terre-en-Vue is building tools to facilitate its implementation, including by working on creating deeds of sale with specific clauses.