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Discussion of Farmland Access with Sjoerd Wartena and Veronique Riofol

This interview with Sjoerd Wartena and Veronique Rioufol from the Terre De Liens initiative in France was prepared for April 27th, 2014 as part of OUR LAND: A Symposium on Farmland Access in the 21st Century.

Terre De Liens was founded by Sjoerd Wartena in 2007. As of 2014, the organization held €48 Million worth of land, with the mission of supporting new entrants in organic agriculture.

Hello folks, sorry for talking on video, but you see my neck is still covered and traveling not easy. A week ago my wife and I watched the film “At Berkeley” by Frederic Wiseman and there was a memory thrill, linked to our visit to Berkeley in the roaring end of the sixties. I really hope that the future will bring the occasion to come over again and meet you in real.

There is a direct line between that trip around 1970 to the USA and the farming subject of today. We visited in that time the first back to the land communities in New Mexico and followed underground paper activities all over the States. So we came back rather inspired and more or less prepared to jump on an opportunity to leave Amsterdam and go back to the land. And, yes, in 1973 we started with another family in the mountains of South East France a goat farm, of course, which is still functioning, as Severine could see, with a new generation of successors.

We became after all serious farmers – that takes a lot of time! – and especially the meeting with the last 6 old farmers of the practically deserted village was of decisive importance for our attitude towards « peasant » farming, combined with organic methods. These people were the last representatives of thousands of generations in a transmission process were the young learned from the old and made slight corrections and changes but didn’t, as has happened in the last 200 years, and especially in the last century, cut off the line to the past and followed blindly new techniques. With the revolutionary result of the practical disappearance of farmers. And this is happening today in other continents.

These old people were awaiting the end of their civilisation and we thought, no, that must not be!! We will be the next generation and follow their instructions and knowledge and make corrections to adapt their traditions to our times. That is the basis of my virtual presence here and I am more then ever persuaded that their way of considering nature and their ingenious methods and multifunctional way of living can and should be the inspiring example for 21st century peasant/smallholder/family farming.

Well, for the moment that is not the case. The decline in smallholder farming is a fact, despite the nomination of the year 2014 as the year of family farming. The statistics are clear. In the European Union there were in 2010 still 12 million farmers (20 % less then in 2003). 3 % control 50 % of the land. 53 % is over 55 years old (30 % over 65) 6 to 7 % are younger than 35. 30 % of all these farmers are Rumanians living on small plots without successors.

Despite the wonderful and optimistic words in your invitation about “A new generation of young, well-prepared, and sustainable farmers is on the rise, ready to establish themselves securely on the land, etc, etc.” you remark, later on in that text, that this shift is complicated, and we all know that it is complicated. The situation in the USA is not really different from that in Europe and the USDA is already talking about the end of family-farms, who become to big and will not be transferable anymore. So we go in the direction of future mega-farms like in Brazil and Russia. Besides, the USDA thinks that the common to-the-ground knowledge of farmers is not needed anymore. Electronics will do a better and cheaper job as the latest Monsanto/John Deere farmer letter shows us. And in Europe this tendency is not really different and already in full swing in the eastern countries.

So, what to do? There is resistance; there is a new generation, more or less well prepared. But it is a resistance movement and like all resistance movements they have trouble to get together and put their energy and motivation into the same jar. Initiatives are often the result of the ideas of a few inspired individuals, who are not easily ready to compromise and integrate their child in other structures. And in the meantime, market, greed, consumption growth and high tech/big scale fetishism join their forces. Let us be clear, today we need a good dose of optimism and willingness to cooperate, to have any chance to make visible and audible new ways to live together or at least create a better balance between different social views.

Smallholder farming is an important but not exclusive part of this shift towards another mentality and metamorphose of living together principles. Slow money, local money, green banks, alternative and local energy production, the educational programs, schools, etc. are all part of the same underground/resistance movement. How do we get this boiling but chaotic current better channelled and equipped to match the mainstream?

Back to Terre de Liens. 
Another initiative from a few inspired people. But, don’t worry, we are all the time looking for a place (coalition) where our child can serve best. It was from the beginning clear that political action was not an option. Change comes from civil society and in democracy politics follow only if the pressure becomes measurable and the chance to be re-elected is in danger!

So, like the Greenhorns, the Agrarian Trust, the National Young Framers Coalition, we started, not to discuss and criticise, but to do things and to start in 2003 an association with the objective to create a solidarity investment company (2007) and a foundation (2009) which buy or receive land that will be liberated in that way from the market system and becomes available for young farmers.

Nothing comes from nowhere and there existed already here and there, as in the US, examples of citizens who brought together money to make it possible for a friend, son or daughter, to start a farm. The idea of TdL was to do this on a scale that made departure of shareholder money possible or easier, without putting in danger the farm existence. We needed for that the support of financial knowledge and we created an ethical investment company under a limited partnership status (société en commandite par actions) together with the only French green bank La NEF (New Fraternal Economy).The main challenge was to show that people are ready to invest with no other ROI (Return on Investment) than better food, landscape, biodiversity, environment, meaningful jobs. Farming today is not a very remunerative activity in the market-ideology, as the subvention-system proves.

We had to show the benefits of producing food for a local or regional market and to integrate this farming activity in its social surrounding. And to reach these people, we needed not only reliable partners in the financial and juridical sector. but we needed also partner-networks in distribution, communication and the media. And let us not forget that I’m rather cynical about politics but on a local or regional level things are sometimes, not always!, different and we did find and still find on this level very loyal and enthusiastic supporters

Well, it worked out not too bad. In 2014 we have about 9000 shareholders bringing together 35 million € (around 48 million dollars). 25 % of the money is set aside to be able to repay departing shareholders (till yet a tiny percentage). 7% is from pension funds which, by law, are obliged to invest 5 % of their funds in the social and solidarity-based economy. In 2013, for the first time we revaluated the shares on the basis of inflation, from 100 to 102 and today it is 103 €. We bought or are buying 100 farms with about 200 farmers on 6000 acres. Our foundation has for the moment about 5 million € (7 million US$) in money and 7 farms.

Well, Americans, even sustainable and alternative supporters like business, so this is to make you happy. More information is on the web or on a little paper that accompanies this video performance.

Our National association brings together partner organisations like an organic supermarket cooperative chain (Biocoop), the French organic farmers organisation (FNAB), the Christian rural youth movement (MRJC), individual historic founders of Terre de liens (TdL) and well-qualified persons, together with the representatives of 19 regional TdL associations. Financial structures, regional associations and the national staff today constitute about 60 people. The financial structures are economically independent and arrive for the moment to survive without subsidies. But the rest of the movement is dependent on donors like the Fondation de France, and quite some others and the subsidies from the regional governments which recognise the investment capacity of Tdl in a subject that citizens ask for and that they don’t have. Of course it is a vulnerable situation and the challenge is to earn government acceptance of the work we do to restore organic smallholder farming. Besides the fact that, in the future, the Foundation could grow out to a mass movement for the support of patrimonial, environmental, local small holder farming, thereby preserving a still very exceptional and favourable presence of this type of farms in France.

What are for the moments the rather surprising results and consequences of such an initiative?
First of all, the general astonishment, going beyond our own circles, that in a rather short time and with so little communication capacities, people were ready to do a solidarity-based investment. Especially local and regional politicians, more accustomed to complaints and critic, were rather curious and in consequence motivated to help.

Then we were confronted very soon with a rather complex movement with financial structures, regional associations and a national one. Democratic governance with people from often rather different backgrounds (leftwing people, biodynamic and organic movements, militant environmentalists, wealthy shareholders looking for a nice subject and some tax advantages, etc.) There we saw that real land management as a way to create connections (Terre de Liens) was quite successful. And even in France, where political divisions are deep and the attitude towards people who don’t think exactly the same as you is rather harsh, we managed in TdL (for the moment) to accept that a good dose of trust, combined with a reasonable degree of compromise and delegation can work.

In fact TdL is a laboratory of managing land as commons by a civil society organisation and should as such be welcomed by a government that fails for the moment to fund a good overall land policy. Land laws are in every country different and serve mostly the holy ownership structure, which makes a regional land destination program impossible. How can local authorities define land destination with elements such as agricultural activity, leisure, nature reserves, industry and business parks, housing, etc., when every parcel has an owner who decides when he sells, to whom and at what price? All land law-making is an inextricable mix of measures where only specialists and real estate agents find their ways and their profits.

The 2400 ha (6000 acres) of TdL are agricultural, mostly organic and will stay like that as long as we are capable to continue. The real challenge is of course to gain official acknowledgement and there we are on another activity that we need to develop: the political debate that must accompany our creation of farms.

In the beginning of this speech, I underlined the necessity of coalition. A coalition of all these wonderful initiatives and examples, which grow underground. A coalition that is capable to communicate and to make holes in the frenzy greedy walls of ever-lasting growth and consumption.

I was amused to see your national wise guy Thomas Friedman being somewhat uncomfortable in the New York Times about the rapid growth of robotization. Not only lower jobs are threatened but sooner than we think also the middle and higher staff will become superfluous. May be things are going a little bit too fast was his somewhat hesitating conclusion. Of course things go too fast. Big scale agriculture is booming and boasts that it will feed the world. Where is the coalition to counter this dangerous nonsense. The elements exist, the coalition does not for the moment.

TdL experience shows that with relatively small support you can reach political influence. TdL is mentioned in official documents. We are received by the minister of Agriculture, invited on conferences and cited as an example. We sign conventions with state offices and have concluded the first conventions with cities and regions. We have succeeded to include some favourable amendments in legislative procedures. We coordinate a European work group on Access to Land that brings together several comparable initiatives in Europe and proposes together with the European Section of Via Campesina and probably other stakeholders a petition to the European parliament to work on a European land legislation, facilitating access to land for smallholder family farming.

We want to be integrated in this coalition and bring our experience in land management to serve the overall movement of change.

That’s the reason I speak to you. Mutual exchange can be helpful to make visible that in the USA we find comparable activities and that an « Atlantic » or global coalition is in the make. I use in my arguments the work you do and did on easements. You want to know our experiences with the TdL model. Going together towards possible funders, using our different networks, refining our arguments could have a very inspiring effect on both sides. The Urgenci movement of CSA is a good example.

So let this not be a one time event. We need each other.

Thank you for listening.

Sjoerd WARTENA, Vachères-en-quint, France – 9 April 2014

To know more see a case study

Annexes – Terre de liens: some results
Since 2003:

  •  10 000 citizens mobilised
  •  120 farms acquired
  •  2200 hectares in organic & peasant farming
  •  200 future farmers supported every year
  •  35 Mi € in ethical investment and 5Mi€ in donations
  •  Tens of partnerships with local authorities

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Toward an Agricultural Ethic
The Generosity of Nature
Community Forestry Associations
The Radical Roots of Community Supported Agriculture
Community Supported Food Systems