Managing The Commons

At the 35th Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures, both Bren Smith and Allan Savory advocated for managing the commons, rather than “letting nature just take its own course.” They spoke on behalf of climate-change abatement, food security, job creation, and the health of both land and sea.

In describing how he transitioned from a position of excluding grazing animals from grasslands to a position of inclusion in a rotational grazing system for which he is now famous, Allan Savory said: “Looking at the erratic results I realized the fault was mine… what I hadn’t looked at was the social side of it, the cultural side of it. I hadn’t looked at the economic side of it. You cannot in any management do anything that avoids social, environmental, and economic complexity and I hadn’t brought them all together.”

Echoing this perspective, Bren Smith called for fisherman to transition from the mindset of hunters to that of farmers of the oceans.  “This is our first chance in generations to grow the right way, to provide good middle class jobs, restore ecosystems, and feed the planet. This is the new face of environmentalism. This is our chance as our food system gets pushed out to sea to block privatization, to protect our commons, to spread the seeds of justice. We can invent new occupations, and shift entire workforces out of the old economy and into the restorative economy. This is our chance to recruit an army of ocean farmers growing a new-climate cuisine that is both beautiful and hopeful so that all of us can make a living on a living planet.”

Both of their arguments were appropriate for the setting of the lectures – the stunningly beautiful round barn of the Churchtown Dairy. Originally the Foundation for Agricultural Integrity, the holder of the land, planned to lease the 250 acres of pasture to a farmer to develop a raw-milk dairy. The farmer would still have equity in the buildings yet would avoid the yoke of an unsustainable mortgage on the land.  But the proposed barn designs, while clean and functional, failed to measure up to the integrity of the landscape and the dignity of the cows.

Trustees of the Foundation realized they would have to take responsibility for funding both land and buildings if they wanted to integrate aesthetic considerations with concern for the soil, the cows, the farmers, and the regional community. The resulting complex of laying-in barn, milking barn, cheese parlor, cheese cave, and farm store, designed by Rick Anderson, heralds a new kind of citizen-supported agriculture. The leasing farmers will be responsible for ongoing operational expenses but not for financing land and infrastructure, thus allowing them to focus on the heart of their work – tending a small, well cared for herd and producing high quality raw milk and cheese for the local area.

Calves at the Churchtown Dairy in Churchtown, New York

The Foundation of Agriculture Integrity is not the only organization recognizing that reducing or eliminating the costs of access to common space can transform a community. Two hours to the east, the Northampton Arts Trust is tackling the need for an artistic and cultural commons.

The underlying assumption of the Northampton Arts Trust is “that imagination is essential to the creation of a future we will want to inhabit and that a thriving creative arts community inspires and nourishes such community imagination.  It is therefore incumbent on a responsible citizenry to take steps to secure permanently affordable spaces for creative work within the community.  Such spaces, as an extension of the public commons, must be fairly managed and their use allocated in such a way as to preserve the space for future generations while ensuring vibrant present use.”

The Arts Trust is currently working to acquire buildings that are structurally sound, operationally efficient, and well suited for creative work of various kinds. They will then lease these spaces to artists and organizations on affordable terms with the option for lessees to further customize each space for their particular purposes.

Downtown Great Barrington, home to pioneering community land trust work

Here in the Berkshires, the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires is extending the concept of a managed commons to include working farmland as well as sites for workforce housing and new manufacturing, which are critical to the region’s economic and social integrity. Land is acquired by purchase or gift. Citizens with excess land who wish to enable a specific enterprise, such as a cannery to increase regional food processing capacity or a wool processing facility to renew local clothing industry, can donate the land to the Trust with restrictions on use.

The Community Land Trust develops a land-use plan for each site determined by its natural characteristics, the priorities of the regional community, and the objectives of donors. It then leases the site on a long-term basis for that purpose.  Lessees – whether a group of individuals, a cooperative, or a corporation – purchase or construct their own buildings. The land trust holds an option to repurchase buildings at a formula price, excluding land value to ensure affordability for subsequent leaseholders and maintaining intended use into the future. A one-time purchase or gift of land is turned into a permanent community resource in a managed commons.

Background articles and legal documents for this model are available at:

From ocean farms to rotationally grazed grasslands to model dairies to performance spaces to manufacturing sites, a managed commons requires active citizen oversight. It will mean hard work through an open democratic process, relying on local knowledge and imaginative philanthropy. Such citizen-initiated and citizen-managed commons are the cornerstones of a new economy that makes possible climate-change abatement, regional food security, sustainable job creation, and the health of both land and sea.