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To have a sustainable farm, there must be an effective ecological model that is profitable for people and mindful of the planet. 

Forward-Thinking Farming: Farmland LP’s Push for the Ecological Approach

The brilliant systems thinker and inventor Buckminster Fuller once stated, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Fuller’s sentiment rings true. Everywhere you look in modern society, you can find fields that have changed as people have introduced new models. For example, in the field of medicine, when doctors spied a new model of microbiology through early microscopes, a host of unsanitary medical procedures became obsolete. Likewise, in the field of transportation, when oil barrens struck black gold, they paved the way for the automobile, and horse-drawn carriages became obsolete. When considering new models and obsolescence, perhaps the most important field for the fate of humanity is the field underfoot—the farm field.

Agriculture, which provides the surplus of food necessary to run civilization, has repeatedly changed in response to new models. Today’s dominant agricultural model, which can be called the extractive approach to farming, is overexploiting soil and water and disconnecting people from the land. Another model rooted in sustainability is needed. Call it the ecological approach to farming, and Farmland LP, an investment company that converts farmland from conventional to organic, is working to assemble the key components.

Systems thinkers like Buckminster Fuller analyze cause-and-effect relationships among parts of systems. They study stocks and flows of materials and energy while investigating why systems (some simple—like a grandfather clock and some complex—like a tropical rainforest) behave the way they do. When Jason Bradford and Craig Wichner founded Farmland LP, they were thinking in systems. They had both studied the historical forces that forged the dominant agricultural model, and they used their findings to form a plan for supporting a new and improved model.

At the time it arose, most notably in the second half of the twentieth century, the extractive approach to farming was appealing. No one (at least no one who’s ever harvested a field with a scythe) denies farming is hard work. Industrialization and automation helped relieve some of the most labor-intensive tasks and enabled farms to grow larger. With tools like tractors and combines, farmers could tend many more acres and generate higher revenues. The trend of consolidating farmland into larger and larger tracts continues today.  According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in the early 1980s, most farms had less than 600 crop acres; today, most cropland is on farms with at least 1,100 acres, and many farms are five and ten times that size.

As farms were getting bigger, farmers were also getting more specialized. The upsurge in production of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides after World War II enabled farmers to simplify their crop rotations. Instead of raising livestock and growing dozens of crops in a long-term rotation to maintain soil fertility, livestock could be moved offsite to feedlots, and farmers could specialize in one or two crops. Synthetic chemicals and government policies that subsidize commodity crops enabled a standard corn-and-soybean rotation year after year. Today, 53% of U.S. cropland is planted in corn and soybeans. Scale and specialization also opened the door for corporatization and the emergence of global commodity markets. As on-farm decision-making moved from the family living room to the corporate board room, the number of people involved in farming dwindled. A century ago, farmers comprised about a quarter of the U.S. labor force. Today, only 1% of Americans call themselves farmers. As economies of scale drove prices down, many small farms couldn’t generate enough revenue to stay afloat. Some faced foreclosure and were consolidated into larger farm holdings, a process that pushed the rural exodus. The rural-to-urban migration has shredded the social fabric of communities that have had to shutter schools, post offices, libraries, shops, and other mainstays of Main Street.

As tough as the extractive approach to farming has been on family farms and rural communities, it’s been even tougher on the environment. The extractive approach focuses almost exclusively on achieving the highest short-term yields (measured as quantity of food or dollars of income produced per acre in a given year). This focus can produce a lot of food, but it also produces a lot of side effects. Soil, the foundation of farms, has been under attack. Poor management practices have caused widespread erosion. According to research from Cornell University, soil is being lost around the world 10 to 40 times faster than it is being replenished. Much of the soil that remains in fields suffers from diminished fertility. Water quality and water quantity are also under attack. Pollution from farm runoff has become commonplace, and scientists have documented the depletion of groundwater aquifers around the globe. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that agriculture is responsible for 14% of greenhouse gas emissions, and the diversity of life is being eliminated from farms. In the U.S. Corn Belt, most of the native prairie species have been intentionally eliminated from farm ecosystems.

“Farm ecosystems”—this phrase contains the roots of the problem. Farms have been treated more like mines than ecosystems, but not everyone is on board with the mining program. Many scientists, business leaders, government officials, and activists have recognized the social and environmental flaws that underpin the extractive approach to farming, and they’ve begun building new models, such as organic farming, community-supported agriculture, and local food movements. Dawning consumer consciousness about where food comes from and how it’s produced is creating significant demand for lower-footprint, higher-quality food. These newer models and trends are spurring the transition to the ecological approach to farming, which aims to provide nutritious food for people while protecting the ecosystems that support all life on Earth.

The ecological approach starts with a true appreciation of the natural components of an agricultural ecosystem—the land, water, and living creatures involved. It accounts for stocks of soil, water, and key nutrients, and it adopts practices that conserve and replenish these stocks. The ecological approach is gaining traction, as the demand for organic food has grown by 14% per year in the U.S. since 1990. However, the fact remains that the amount of organic land in the U.S. is woefully insufficient to meet demand.

Farmland LP’s role is to remove the barriers to organic conversion and scale up the ecological approach. The company’s strategy can be summed up in four simple statements: (1) attract money from investors, (2) buy conventional farmland, (3) convert farmland to organic and work with tenant-partners to manage it sustainably and (4) sell high-value crops, meats, and seeds in the local economy.

From a systems perspective, this strategy capitalizes on the available financial resources and institutions in today’s economy. Farmland LP has established a real estate investment trust (REIT) that uses the power of private equity to purchase farmland. It is currently a private REIT, but the intention is to convert it to a public REIT with tradable shares, so that anyone can invest and own part of a portfolio of sustainable, organic farmland. Farmland LP also takes a systems perspective in managing its land. The company employs a pasture-and-crop rotation that uses perennial plants and livestock to build soil fertility while converting fields to organic. Fields are kept in a pasture phase for four to seven years, then they rotate into organic crops for two to three years. The pasture phase provides the window for completing the three-year process of organic conversion. Farmland LP and tenant-partners can earn income during this three-year period by raising premium pastured livestock, and at the same time, the perennial plants in the pasture and the livestock grazing on them naturally cooperate to build soil structure and fertility.

Once a pasture has run its course (when the plants get old and lose productivity), Farmland LP can provide tenant-partners with naturally nutrient-rich fields to grow premium-priced organic crops. With pastures and ready-to-farm organic acreage, Farmland LP offers opportunities to people who want to raise livestock and crops sustainably. Such ranchers and farmers lease organic land from Farmland LP at reasonable rates.  Suppose if they wanted to buy their own farmland instead, then they would need millions of dollars to purchase a midsize farm. Additionally, they would have to shoulder the burden of achieving organic certification. By going organic, Farmland LP and its tenant-partners eliminate synthetic inputs that cause water pollution, and by building local and regional markets for the food, they reconnect people to farmland and establish rural jobs to rebuild community and care for the land.

Farmland LP didn’t invent the ecological approach farming; its innovation is in navigating financial and agricultural systems to scale it up. The company is proving that sustainable organic farming can outperform chemically-dependent agriculture, and that ecologically sound food producers can gain access to the organic land they need.

Buckminster Fuller’s insight about replacing the existing model by building a new model applies to countless changes throughout human history. Without a firm understanding of the systems in play, such changes can be fraught with danger, like when the extractive approach to farming was the new model. By taking care to consider the systems, like Farmland LP is when it comes to farms, finance, ecosystems, and economies, Fuller’s words offer hope. Hope for an ecological model that works for both the people and the planet.