Public landowners can influence the management of their land by providing access to specific people or using diverse instruments to encourage sustainable uses of public land. Having decided on people and projects to prioritise, local governments are also in a position to manage the relationship with tenants. This is a rather specialised area of work, and learning responsibilities as a landlord also comes along with experience. This handbook nevertheless proposes a few ideas and first steps to consider (see table 2 below “Being a public landlord, some ideas”).

Providing access to specific people and sustainable projects

Public owners must ensure best value return of public investment in land by prioritising land users and uses that meet specific policy goals. This includes prioritising:

  • Agroecological farmers and new entrants. These farmers face specific difficulties (see about section) which public owners can help overcome to renew generations of farmers and promote regenerative agricultural practices.

  • Sustainable and social projects. Prioritising projects with social and environmental goals can help enhance services derived from the public land (e.g. projects of re-employment and education through farming, and carbon-storing or biodiversity-enhancing projects). Sometimes pairing up farmers’ projects with non-profit organisations or social enterprises can be an option to help realise these goals.

  • Existing farmers with specific needs. Public land can help consolidate the activity of some small and sustainable farms, e.g. access to additional pastures for extensive cattle-raising activities. It can also be used to incentivise a change of agricultural practices by existing farmers. In France, the intercommunal authority Communauté d’agglomération du Douaisis has for instance provided access to “test plots” of public land to conventional farmers wanting to experiment with organic agriculture. This helped several farms convert to organic farming.

To prioritise certain users, local governments can organise calls for tender to allocate public plots. It is important to reflect on criteria and scoring to select projects that comply with public goals (see the example of Leuven below). A mixed selection committee with concerned stakeholders – e.g. farmers, civil society organisations – can support the process with specific expertise. If allocating several plots, you may dialogue with candidates to decide on the repartition of lands.

Leuven's allocation of public land for sustainable projects

Leuven realised an inventory of public farmland and launched a call for projects to allocate available plots to young and sustainable farmers. The call concerned ten plots of in total 9 ha. The evaluation process scored projects based on five aspects:

  • Sustainability

  • Economic viability

  • Feasibility

  • Added social value

  • Innovation

The candidates had to reach a score of at least 50% across the five categories mentioned, and at least 70% in total. Based on these conditions, in 2019, 10 projects were approved by the municipality. Specific ‘free of charge’ contracts were initially established with farmers – as the Flemish lease law would not allow selecting specific projects or stipulating use conditions (e.g. executing the approved projects). In 2022, a second project call was launched offering another 12 plots for organisations or individuals (not necessarily professional farmers) to set up agricultural initiatives that are sustainable, economically feasible and innovative, and add value to the local community.

Beyond guidelines for allocation, diverse instruments can be used to promote the sustainable use of public land. Minimum standards, leases including environmental clauses (see box “Zoom in on the French environmental rural lease” below), remuneration for public services, and nature conservation agreements are a few options. Such conditions should be established in cooperation with the farmers to ensure their viability and maintenance over time.

Some laws do not allow choosing tenants or imposing conditions for sustainable agriculture within agricultural leases. In those circumstances, alternative arrangements such as “free” or temporary (but renewable) contracts can be considered as in the case of Leuven above. Another option is to internalise the management of the farmland, like the municipality of Mouans-Sartoux in France which decided to hire and salary a vegetable grower. While this is a way to clearly control the achievement of public goals, it requires an important investment from the local authority (read the full case study for more information).

Local authorities can also reflect on wider “access to public farmland”, by providing ways for the local community to benefit from these open spaces. Some owners encourage open farm projects (which allow for visits by the public, or support educational use) or try to improve accessibility through green pathways or public transport leading to farms. With this, however, comes the responsibility to manage possible conflicts between farming and other beneficiary activities. For instance:

  • Make sure the responsibility to handle a farm visit is not incumbent on farmers or benefits their financial models.

  • Prevent littering, vandalism, disturbing farm animals by visitors (and their pets), and possible and other risks associated with wider access. This can be done in part by raising awareness of the value of the land people visit.

Zoom on: The French Environmental Rural Lease

Key features:

  • A farm lease with environmental clauses

  • Allows to orient land use while preserving farmer security

Introduced in the 2006 Farm Bill, the Environmental Rural Lease (ERL) has become a key instrument to promote ecological agriculture. ERLs offer the possibility to add lease clauses guaranteeing the use of environmentally friendly practices while preserving the tenant rights included in conventional leases (9 years’ minimum length, automatic renewal, controlled rent prices, etc.). The environmental clauses that an owner may add to an ERL are defined by law. They include, for instance, practising organic agriculture, forbidding the ploughing of grassland, diversifying crop rotation, using specific harvest techniques, practising agroforestry and so on. Initially reserved for public authorities and environmental organisations, ERLs were quickly opened to charitable trusts and solidarity-based companies, land owners in areas under specific protection (e.g. Natura 2000, river banks, national parks, water catchment areas, etc.), and – since 2014 – any public or private owner aiming to maintain existing practices or infrastructures (i.e. the owner is allowed to add the “organic farming” clause if the land was previously farmed organically).

Source: Access to Land

Being a public landlord

It may be a daunting task to reinvent your role as a public landlord, especially if no staff or official roles exist to manage public assets. This work can be approached more easily through experience sharing with other public or ethical landowners. Above all, day-to-day practice and commitment to work with and for tenants will make being a public landlord gradually easier. This handbook only offers simple ideas to get started.

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