Farmland Tenure: A Tool Kit

Final Report for SW04-121

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2004: $103,130.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2007
Region: Western
State: California
Principal Investigator:
Steve Schwartz
California FarmLink
Expand All

Project Information


The project researched and summarized alternative land tenure models for producers; analyzed trends in California farmland tenure; and assessed options for public agencies to lease out agricultural lands. The project researched more than 20 land tenure options. This research was reported in a comprehensive tenure models handbook that provides farmers with background, case studies, and sample language for fifteen distinct options to achieve long-term land tenure. It provided public agencies with information regarding how to create land tenure agreements with farmers. The project represented a unique collaboration between producers, grassroots non-profit organizations and several academics.

Project Objectives:
  • Goal 1: Increase knowledge of trends in land tenure arrangements utilized by California farmers.
    A. Review and analyze 1992, 1997 and 2002 Census of Agricultural Data
    B. Distribute surveys to 500 California agricultural producers on obstacles & solutions to obtaining land tenure and connections between tenure length and stewardship practices.
    C. Survey producers and agricultural professionals serving them regarding policy options to facilitate easier access to long-term tenure options.

    Goal 2: Assist at least 500 farmers and ranchers in developing long-term land tenure agreements by providing a clear, concise guide to land-tenure options.
    A. Compile a handbook on land tenure models including case studies and sample legal language.
    B. Translate key sections of land tenure handbook to Spanish.
    C. Present land tenure information at 6 trainings for beginning farmers.
    D. Distribute land tenure model information and case studies to at least 500 farmers.
    E. Post land tenure models, case studies and legal language on the World Wide Web.
    F. Survey and interview at least 30 recipients of the handbook to evaluate impact.

    Goal 3: Provide key decision-makers with policy options for increasing long-term tenure opportunities for beginning farmers.
    A. Survey at least 20 public agencies (special districts, etc.) to study the legal and social barriers to leasing lands to farmers, and interview representatives of at least 3 public agencies that do lease land to agricultural producers to learn about their process and the tools they used.
    B. Distribute a summary of recommendations for leasing land to beginning farmers to at least 20 public agencies and governments in California, and post on the World Wide Web.
    C. Analyze the applicability of policies around the country that facilitate land tenure.
    D. Develop a list of specific policy recommendations appropriate to California, distribute to policy decision makers and make findings available from the World Wide Web.
    E. Share project findings, land tenure publication and policy recommendations with organizations from 20 states through the National Farm Transition Network.


This project was designed to further Western SARE’s program goals related to: promoting good stewardship, enhancing the quality of life for producers, ensuring rural community viability, protecting the health and safety of the producer, optimizing the use of on-farm resources, integrating biological cycles and controls, promoting crop and enterprise diversity, and providing insight into the regional, economic, social and environmental implications of adopting sustainable agricultural practices and systems. Producers who have long-term tenure are able to make more of a commitment and a connection to the communities where they earn their livelihoods. Roadside stands, CSA (Community Support Agriculture) programs and seasonal agri-tourism events become integral to the quality of life for nearby communities. Long-range planning is essential in pursuing sustainability. If farmers starting out or expanding their operations do not have the security of long-term access to land, our agricultural systems can not be sustainable. By increasing access to long-term land tenure options, our project will preserve and promote economically viable agricultural systems. These tools or options have not been accessible because only a relatively small group of individuals were familiar with them, others required high legal fees to implement. Utilization of some models such as conservation easements required working with groups that sometimes fail to seek out small-scale producers.

Only limited efforts have been made to develop and implement policy options addressing concerns and opportunities described above. Such policies have the potential to: increase access to farmland; enhance the economic viability of rural communities; preserve and encourage a quality of life which supports a sustainable agrarian lifestyle for producer families; build a more sustainable food supply; and improve protections of open space for agriculture and habitat.

Using USDA statistics, including 2002 Census of Agriculture data, the project team addressed crucial questions about land tenure: who’s leasing, and in what age group? Special tabulations of Census of Agriculture data were requested, compiled, and analyzed to address questions such as: What were the trends in tenure agreement (i.e. leases versus purchases) in relation to farm size, gender of operator?
New literature addressing the practical challenges the project addressed related to land tenure has been limited during the project period. The most significant publication on the topic, that was unrelated to this project, that the project team is aware of is “Holding Ground” developed by Kathy Ruhf and the New England Small Farm Institute. The project team worked to not unnecessarily replicate information addressed in that publication and emphasized a different approach to providing farmers and ranchers with practical information.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Christopher Byrne
  • John Guardino
  • Kendra Johnson
  • Cynthia Kallenbach
  • Reggie Knox
  • Linda Peterson


Materials and methods:

The basic methodology for advancing tenure models was to assist farmers and ranchers throughout California with real life situations they were facing as they attempted to secure tenure for sustainable agricultural operations. California FarmLink staff addressed the challenges, whether commonplace leases or innovative models, in such a way that the assistance provided could be used to explain a model, tell a story and promote replicability. This was done with the intent of ensuring that other producers would benefit from the work done. In this way we were able to identify and/or promote strategies that have been largely unknown, undeveloped or unpublicized.

Producers are the most important end users of the handbook, and we worked with them to design the project to ensure their needs are met. Producers were involved in preparation of this project including conceptualizing the project design and reviewing draft proposals during conversations, teleconference and in-person meetings. California FarmLink continued to work with producers from several regions of California throughout the three-year project, feedback from the producers was used to formulate land tenure options which served as the basis for the contents of the handbook. The handbook, specifically land tenure option summaries and case-studies, is being reviewed by representative producers for readability and for accuracy, as appropriate. Producer cooperators served as presenters at conference workshops described herein. These cooperators represent key agricultural regions of California including: the Sacramento Valley, Southern San Joaquin Valley, North Coast and Central Coast.

FarmLink’s team conducted detailed census data analysis, and continued development of tenure models in line with the stated goals and objectives of the project. This included work by graduate student Cynthia Kallenbach of UC Davis and John Guardino. Special cross-tabulations of the Census of Agriculture data were requested and obtained. The request to the Census of Agriculture was not completed for over a year, however it resulted in important data which was available for the first time and analyzed solely by this project.

Surveys were developed by Patrick Archie under the guidance of Steve Schwartz and Archie’s graduate student advisor. Public agency surveys were anonymous and compiled. Individualized interviews addressing the survey topics were conducted by Graduate Student Patrick Archie with approximately 10 representatives of land conservation groups and local governments holding land suitable for agricultural leases. Survey distribution reached all agricultural regions of California.

The project disseminated information to three target groups: producers, decision-makers influencing agricultural policy, and public agencies in charge of arable lands. The Farmers Guide to Securing Land serves as a “Tool Kit,” presenting findings on various land tenure models, relevant case studies and sample legal language to be used in developing land tenure agreements.

Final membership of the project team varied over the approximately four years from the time the proposal was submitted to the time the project was completed. The majority of the project work was done by California FarmLink staff and interns including: Steve Schwartz, Christopher Byrne, Louise Loeb, Reggie Knox, Kendra Johnson, Linda Peterson, Cynthia Kallenbach, Carly Castagnola and John Guardino. Other major participants included: Attorney John Davis of Northern California Legal Services; Christine Wagner; Laura-Ann Minkoff; Patrick Archie and Brian Rianda.

Farmers and other agricultural landowners who advanced the project by contributing personal information for land-tenure case-studies and helped craft the final versions of those case-studies included: Jared Lawson; Karen Heisler; Brock Fulmer; Kevin McEnnis; David Scott; Judith Redmond; Mark Lipson; Roosevelt Tarlesson, Wayne James; Juan Chavira; Steve Pedersen; Al Courcheyne and Ricky Gutierrez.

Research results and discussion:

The project emphasized researching, and facilitating development and implementation of various land tenure models for small-scale farmers. Findings and data collected have been incorporated into the “Farmers’ Guide to Securing Land,” the handbook created as a result of this grant.
The project researched more than 20 land tenure options including:
• Cash-rent leases from private, governmental and non-profit entities
(including language requiring specific sustainable stewardship practices)
• Intergenerational transfer with installment sale, lease option, and gifting.
• Community land trusts.
• Long-term lease (99 year/lifetime) and inheritable lease options.
• Limited liability corporation ownership with lease to non-profit entity.
• Cooperative ownership of land and/or farm business with profile of legal options.
• Fee title purchase and sale of conservation easement(s).

These key findings are summarized in the appendix to this report as well as page 4-9 of the “Farmers’ Guide.” Data and analysis on trends in tenure and leases from public and non-profit agencies are available on pages 22-14.

Efforts to translate tenure models into Spanish began with translation of comprehensive lease language.

Work with a variety of farm-specific projects from 2005 to 2007 were summarized and used for the final version of the Guide. Development of policy options was advanced to facilitate access to land tenure for farmers through work with California’s Coastal Commission, and with representatives of other farm link organizations.

References after several chapters and/or articles indicate relevant articles and literature. In addition specific resources, including web-sites, are offered on page 158-159 of the Farmers’ Guide to Securing Land.

Research conclusions:

Measurable impacts of project:

California FarmLink’s research and development of models illustrate how the project team addressed actual challenges faced by beginning farmers/producers in such a way as to build a resource bank of case-studies, legal documents and other materials. Through the publication on land tenure options, the information we gathered and the case studies will be available to small farmers throughout California. The larger impact on producers from the Farmers’ Guide to Securing Land, workshops and policy recommendations cannot be fully assessed at this time. However findings have impacted policies of the California Coastal Commission, and we expect they will impact the California State Legislature; and implementation of the federal Farm Bill in the future.

This Guide provides farmers and ranchers with all the necessary tools to make decisions and draft agreements securing long-term tenure for their farming operations. Beginning farmers will find this especially valuable in the grim face of rising cost of purchasing land, as will retiring farmers who wish to see the land they have cultivated continue in agricultural production. By facilitating establishment of long-tenure tenure agreements the project will provide an incentive to producers interested in implementing sustainable production techniques on their farms. Stewardship practices more likely to be implemented by farmers with long-term tenure include: crop rotation, cover cropping, fallowing, permanent insectary hedgerows, soil building, and planting perennial crops including fruit trees. These types of practices, essential to a whole farm systems approach, can only be achieved with a commitment over time. That commitment is difficult to justify economically when the farmer has only a one-year agreement to the land. Retirement age, land-holding producers will be able to utilize the information as part of their farm succession planning ensuring their land continues in agricultural production while meeting financial goals.

Information Dissemination:

The Farmers’ Guide to Securing Land publication has been distributed to over 50 individuals including participants in California FarmLink’s matching program, trainings, and outreach events. California FarmLink’s database of matching program participants includes 600 farmers and ranchers seeking to start or expand their own operations. Approximately 80% have stated they are committed to sustainable agricultural practices including organic agriculture.

Key findings have been made available through workshops including producer panels to articulate important tenure options directly to producers. Segments of the handbook will be made available electronically through the California FarmLink website. Key elements of the handbook will be translated into Spanish including a glossary of terms, case-studies, and model descriptions. Spanish-speaking producer cooperators will present findings to farmer colleagues whose native language is Spanish.

Additional dissemination is planned after release of a revised 2nd edition. To promote the availability of the handbook staff will outreach to periodicals serving farmers and ranchers including: Growing for Market, Small Farm Journal, AgAlert, Agrarian Advocate etc. Finally, the publication will be made available to co-op extension agents, attorneys, accountants and other professional advisors to farmers as part of FarmLink’s role in serving as a clearinghouse of resources for professionals. These individuals have the ability to further disseminate information to clients most in need.

Our project will increase opportunities to transition these lands to the next generation who typically start out with short-term leases or a “handshake” lease. The most common alternative to ownership is a lease. With over 9,000 farms operating on leased land in California, clearly we have the potential to reach a very large number of producers to help implement longer-term land tenure options.

Measurable Impacts in the Future:

Since the group's inception in 1998, California FarmLink has served over two thousand requests from beginning farmers throughout the state looking for assistance with land tenure challenges. Consistently these individuals were seeking sample language and guidance on how to craft land tenure agreements to meet both common and highly unusual circumstances. This project developed clear comprehensive materials to respond to such requests. As a result we expect the number of small farmers operating without signed tenure agreements to decrease.
By translating key information on tenure into Spanish we further address a missing link in sustainable production as many Hispanic farm managers are positioned to move into entrepreneurial farming opportunities.

The majority of the “Toolkit” publication has direct relevance across state borders including case-studies, descriptions of models, policy options and best practices for leasing by public entities. This represents approximately 80% of the project deliverables.

Participation Summary

Research Outcomes

No research outcomes

Education and Outreach

Participation Summary:

Education and outreach methods and analyses:

 Farmer’s Guide to Securing Land, 1st Edition, January 2008
 In 2005 the Land Access Membership Action Team, a project of the Community Food and Justice Coalition (CFJC), developed a publication entitled “GROUNDING OURSELVES: Innovative Land Tenure Models in California and Beyond.” The principal investigator provided some assistance in that effort through several meetings and conversations, and by providing recommendations for cases that might also be included in the publication “Farmers’ Guide to Securing Land.” The case-study “Tierra Vegetables CSA Farm and Rancher Mac Lewis Lease from the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District” first appeared in that publication and was authored by Sean Gillon, Laura-Ann Minkoff, and Rebecca Thistlewaite

 “Conserving Farmland But for Whom? Using agricultural conservation easements to
improve land ownership by next generation’s farmers.” Master’s Thesis of Kendra Johnson, University of California, Davis. This project was independent from the Western SARE-funded project however work related to the Western SARE project helped inform aspects of the thesis and vice-versa. This included versions of case-studies originally prepared as part of the “Farmers’ Guide to Securing Land.”

Outreach programs/events:
 Ecological Farming Conference 2007, Pacific Grove, California
 California Farm Conference, Monterey, California 2007
 California Farm Succession Conference, Sacramento, California 2007
 California Farm Conference, Visalia, California 2008 (Scheduled in 2007)
 SARE 20th Anniversary Conference, Kansas City, MO (Principal Investigator’s workshop and book signing took place after the end of the project period but scheduled in 2007)

Numerous other workshops were presented by California FarmLink staff addressing tenure, conservation easements and other issues advanced through this project. In addition, a related program involved Florentino Collazo, who presented on land tenure strategies in Spanish to a group of approximately 60 Spanish speakers at a January, 2007 workshop as part of the EcoFarm Conference. FarmLink staff worked with Collazo and his wife Maria as part of the project to help them secure their farm purchase.

Education and Outreach Outcomes

Recommendations for education and outreach:

Areas needing additional study

Additional study should be conducted addressing the frequency with which farmers are securing tenure in areas where agricultural land prices are defined by non-agricultural uses (i.e. residential development). This research should include the patterns of various strategies used to secure tenure in these situations.

Several next steps are identified for advancement of the work that took place as part of the project as resources are available. First, cooperators, representing non-profit organizations and universities with respected expertise in various disciplines involving agriculture and land use, law and public policy will provide additional review of the handbook prior to publication of the Second Edition. An experienced agricultural curriculum developer will review the publication for content with the specific goal of ensuring that the Second edition is more “user-friendly.”

Policy ideas considered as a result of the research proposed herein will be developed further and distributed to state officials, including members of the California Legislature’s committees, addressing agricultural and land-use; and appropriate members of Congress. Local government decision-makers responsible for publicly-owned land and land-use policies will also receive this information.

We are planning to translate additional sections of the Guide and other resource materials into Spanish.

Though the project focused on California, deliverables will have relevance through the Western SARE region. Our research examined alternative land tenure arrangements used in the Northeast, Southeast and beyond. The results of this research will serve as a model for other states in the Western Region and beyond.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.