Client/ funder: Sonoma County Ag + Open Space District
Partners: University of California Cooperative Extension
Download: Study will be published in September, 2023
The Land Access and Land Tenure for Limited Resource Farmers: Assessment of Conditions and Opportunities in Sonoma County was produced for the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District (Ag + Open Space), in partnership with the University of California Cooperative Extension Sonoma Office (UCCE Sonoma) and nonprofit organization Sustainable Agriculture Education (SAGE). The purpose of the study is to inform Ag + Open Space, UCCE, and their current and future partners about the needs of limited resource farmers (LRFs), and to recommend actions to enhance equitable land access, secure land tenure, and associated farm business viability for LRFs in the County.
This study builds on the prior and current efforts of Ag + Open Space and UCCE around land access and business viability for LRFs. These agricultural leaders recognize that supporting LRFs in Sonoma County is essential to building a vibrant, diverse agricultural sector, which provides multiple social, economic and ecological benefits to the County as a whole. Ag + Open Space and UCCE are committed to strengthening their efforts to support equitable land access, secure land tenure, and associated farm business viability for limited resource farmers in the County.
Sonoma County Limited Resource Farmers and Land Access Conditions
The term “limited resource farmers” refers to farmers who have limited access to the funds and other forms of capital needed to develop a financially sustainable farming operation. The study draws on an analysis of demographic data, a UCCE survey of limited resource farmers in Sonoma County supplemented by selected interviews, and input from an Advisory Group of farmers and service providers to develop an overview of LRFs in Sonoma County.
Key findings include: demand far exceeds supply for farmland that is affordable and suitable for food production; affordable land access and tenure are consistently out of reach for LRFs; lack of on-farm or nearby affordable housing, for both farmers and farm employees, insufficient access to labor (largely due to lack of capital and farmers’ slim profit margins), and limited capital to support farm infrastructure improvements are additional barriers; and for LRFs, an integral part of establishing long term financial sustainability is building equity in real assets.
Models for Land Access and Land Tenure
The study presents five innovative models that have demonstrated potential to improve affordable land access and tenure for limited resource farmers: 1) enhanced agricultural conservation easements; 2) buy-protect-sell; 3) incubators and other “stepping stone” lease models; 4) agricultural parks (ag parks) and other congregant lease models; and 5) community land trusts and other equity-building lease models. These models are not mutually exclusive; many of them overlap or can be used in various combinations. The study explores each model’s pros and cons, variations, and use-cases, along with examples of their implementation.
The study team developed over forty recommendations to address key challenges and opportunities. These recommendations cover access to quality land; affordability of land access and tenure; housing as a key factor for farm success and wealth-building; support for land improvements and stewardship; policy regarding land access and affordability; justice and equitability in land tenure; general farm business viability for limited resource farmers; and recommendations for further research. The study identifies the needs of LRFs with intermediate to advanced experience as an initial target for action, since their success will create a network of mentorship and employment opportunities for less experienced farmers. While individual projects that provide land access are an important part of the solution to land access and tenure challenges, LRFs highlighted the need across all categories of action for broader policy changes which support a thriving small- to medium-scale, diversified farming sector.