Preparing Soil, Planting Seeds: Community Land Trusts for Urban Farms

[Post written by Zoë Ackerman with generous insights from her team members, Alice Maggio, David Morgan and Nicole Huang. Originally posted on the personal blog of UEP Lecturer and Director of Community Practice, Penn Loh.]

In Spring 2018, Alice Maggio, David Morgan, Nicole Huang, and Zoë Ackerman partnered with members of the Urban Farming Institute Community Land Trust to carry out a Tufts Field Project. The Urban Farming Institute (UFI) of Boston’s mission is to promote urban agriculture through education, farmer training, policy initiatives, and farm site access for farmers. Urban Farming Institute Community Land Trust (UFI CLT) is the first organization in Boston whose sole mission is to acquire and steward urban farm sites using the community land trust model. Field Projects is a required course for Tufts UEP MA students, in which they work on projects for the entire spring semester with real world partners. This post discusses the Tufts team’s process of working with each other, our partners at UFI CLT, and several sneak-peeks of the final report.

The Urban Farming Institute Community Land Trust tasked our team with a complex question: How can the community land trust (CLT) model be adapted to best support commercial urban farming in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan?

This overarching question brings up several important concepts. Where did CLTs originate and how do they fundamentally challenge the concept of private property ownership? How do the roots of the CLT movement inform how the model applies to urban agriculture? How are other urban farming CLTs grappling with questions of community engagement, land agreements, and governance? What can UFI CLT learn from them?

As we learned more about the CLT and urban agriculture movements–and where they overlapped and diverged–we realized that our field project would resemble, to some extent, organizational development. We prepared for two-way learning: 1) what were UFI CLT stakeholders thinking about their organization’s role? and 2) what could we as a team bring to UFI CLT from practitioners around the country that would inform their path forward? (for background on the CLT and urban agriculture movements see pages 16-20 of the field project report).

(Peyri Herrera, Creative Commons 2.0)

At the beginning of our project, our team took stock of what we each brought to the table. Our knowledge spanned community land trusts and their history, cooperative governance practices, how to build an urban farm, and community engagement across farmers and surrounding neighbors. We spent about six weeks honing our team process and understanding how our strengths fit togetherSome of us jumped in with dozens of ideas while others listened and helped prioritize with strategic questions. Some of us possessed deep content knowledge, while others lifted up the voices of our partners, making sure our own backgrounds didn’t cloud our ability to hear other stakeholders. Eventually, we each ended up playing all of these roles. Once we’d found this internal rhythm, and identified the questions outlined above, we felt ready to engage further with stakeholders from UFI CLT.

As we prepared for interviews with stakeholders, we framed our role as “reflectors” or “organizational developers.” We recognized the importance of unpacking key terms like stewardship, management, and governance by listening to a broad range of people involved in the UFI CLT. Our team conducted interviews, participated in the Massachusetts Urban Farming Conference, and attended Greater Boston Community Land Trust Network activities to get to know a range of stakeholders. In this process, we found, for example, that a part-time farmer, UFI staff member, and UFI CLT board member had similar and different concerns about land management. While everyone agreed that roles for snow and weed removal needed to be appropriately delegated, stakeholders held different ideas about the lease length. Rather than choosing our preferred answers, we reflected the range of interviewees’ ideas back to the UFI CLT board in our report (see UFI Stakeholder Interviewspages 28-37, for more).

After we synthesized our interviews, we regrouped as a team to grapple with this question: beyond the ideas and needs of various stakeholders, what information could we provide UFI CLT? How could we avoid telling the organization what they already knew? To address this question, we identified key areas for further exploration from other urban and rural agriculture CLTs in the United States. In particular, we wanted to know how other CLTs navigated stewardship, land agreements, governance, community engagement in the context of farming and supporting commercial enterprises. After surveying the field of Community Land Trusts around the country, we conducted interviews with representatives of five key cases from Providence, RI, Anchorage, AK, Madison, WI, Great Barrington, MA, and Roxbury, MA. In our report, the stories of these cases came alive in “vignettes” that illustrated the opportunities and challenges they faced in vivid color (see Case Studies, pages 39-69).

Now that we’d collected the inside and outside perspectives on urban farming via the CLT model, it was time to synthesize these practices as tools for UFI CLT. Rather than forming rigid recommendations, we opted for a “value framework” strategy for conveying our findings. Our team identified fairness, inclusivity, and balancing responsibilities as critical for a successful initiative. From this foundation, we developed tools that the UFI CLT board could use as potential next steps in developing their land agreements, policies, and operational procedures (see pages 72-80 for a description of a Stewardship Compass, a Land Agreement Checklist, and a Governance Checklist). We also provided guides to inform the writing of leases, the development of stewardship plans, and how to adjust these expectations and agreements for farmers at different levels of training–early, beginning, and advanced. Finally, we outlined possible roles for UFI and UFI CLT at each stage of a farmer’s development (see page 81 for Farmer Development Scenarios).

Since finishing our field project in the spring, our team has sent the report out to dozens of urban agriculture and community land trust practitioners. We see the resource as a set of organizational development tools that any CLT or urban agriculture initiative can use to bridge the two movements. The process of creating an urban farming CLT touches on dozens of considerations: how can the model best support farmers at different stages of training? How is adapting the CLT model to housing similar to and different from farming? Who should be on the board and included in the membership? We hope that readers from across the CLT and urban agriculture movements will use our report as a guide to ask themselves the most important questions as they negotiate how to act on their values and implement fair, inclusive, and sustainable practices that fit their particular contexts.