by Rich Nymoen, president of Common Ground-USA

The earth is our common home.  Most people would agree with that principle at least on an abstract level. But what would that mean as a practical matter?

Practically, this principle can be implemented through a concept known as “the Commons.”  A commons is something that belongs to everyone equally such as the atmosphere or the waterways and it’s possible to apply the concept to land use, too.

For example, a few years ago, Common Ground USA’s – Minnesota Chapter, to which I belong, was approached for ideas to increase land access for new farmers in Minnesota.  Farm land was selling here for as much as $10k per acre due to high crop prices and speculative purchases of farm land, and these high land costs were a major barrier for those wanting to become farmers.

After consulting with some Common Ground USA members in other states who were knowledgeable about farm land issues, we crafted a proposal we called a “Rent-sharing Farm Trust” and it borrows from a couple different approaches.

One approach it borrows from is something called a Community Land Trust, which is used in the affordable housing context.  In a Community Land Trust, someone looking for a home will buy one from the trust but after the purchase, the homeowner only has title to the house while the underlying land is still owned by the trust.  So the homeowner then can borrow less for the home because only the house has to be financed, not the underlying land.  The trust then charges about $30 in rent per month for the underlying land.  Houses in the trust don’t have to be clustered together but can be scattered geographically.

Another approach our proposal borrowed from is seen in a plan for fighting climate change called a “Carbon Fee and Dividend” or CFD.  Under a CFD, people are charged for how much carbon they emit and the amounts collected from the carbon fee form a pool of funds from which every resident receives an equal dividend.  Charging the fee reduces the amount of carbon people emit and sharing the proceeds equally with residents reflects the fact that the atmosphere belongs to everyone equally.

So, in combining these two approaches in a Rent-sharing Farm Trust, full-market land rent would be collected from farmers renting land from the trust, but the farmers would have title to any buildings or improvements on the farms.  The farms could be scattered across the state and the land rent collected from them would form a pool of funds from which the trust’s expenses would be paid, with the surplus in the pool being returned to the trust’s farmers as an equal rent credit.

So, for example, if the trust collected $100 in annual rent from Farm 1, $200 from Farm 2 and $300 from Farm 3, half of the $600 in total rent collected could go for trust expenses with the remaining $300 split equally among the three farmers as a $100 rent credit.  Then the net rent would be $0 for Farm 1, $100 for Farm 2 and $200 for Farm 3.

This approach resembles when heirs inherit land “in common,” meaning the land belongs to all the heirs equally.  Then the land is rented out and the heirs split the proceeds among themselves equally.  The Rent-sharing Farm Trust uses the same concept to make it more affordable for new farmers to access land.

Commons-based approaches such as Rent-sharing Farm Trusts can be used to address the land issues that underlie so many of the environmental, social and economic problems that result from failing to apply the truth that the earth is our common home.