Agroforestry Cooperative: Succession for Success (and Long-Term Land Tenure)

Temperate-climate agroforestry offers the potential for long-term ecological mutualism with humans and trees, and while it is time-tested in having sustained millennia of our ancestors, there are many hurdles to shifting lifeways toward agroforestry in 2020. In this post I introduce the main challenges I have identified, and I outline a potential approach to overcome these challenges. In short, that approach is an agroforestry worker cooperative that ‘owns’ (has rights of control, and rights to returns) land and practices stewardship so to advance tree crops and sustain itself.

I hope this clarifies opportunities that we can turn into realities, to support multi-generational stewardship of trees for basic needs in a way that is mutually beneficial to all relations involved.

Challenges

  1. Land access: Long-term land tenure is needed for tree crops. Many crops can be multi-generational, if we allow them to be, and as in forestry.
  2. Land use change: As in forestry, incentivizing or otherwise protecting the tree-based long-term land use is important to realize its benefits. This can be through zoning (political and hard to change), easements (becoming easier), and economics.
  3. Stewardship (what jobs are there in agroforestry?): Many people in the overdeveloped world are accustomed to having many jobs in their lifetime and high geographic mobility, and many people cannot afford land. These are condition that seem incompatible with long-term land tenure of tree crops. There is also the challenge of economically sustainable livelihood. Of the branches of work that advance trees for basic needs (as Keystone Tree Crop Co-op identifies: produce, gather, process, distribute, and consume), it appears that there are not opportunities for work full-time and/or high-paying enough to sustain one’s livelihood (at least not for many years). Tree nursery production is a clear exception, as it can relatively quickly turn into a profitable side-business if not full-time job (see Twisted Tree Farm and Edible Acres for more inspiration).

Cooperative solutions

  1. Land access: A co-op can own land and have staff come and go while maintaining a core, potentially multi-generational long-term tenure over land and operations. This will be discussed more in point #3 about the people involved. To get initial access, the co-op needs capital. Thus far I have found that real estate speculation focused on long-term growth, or REIT-style investment (discussed in the next point), can fund long-term land tenure for agroforestry. These financing models need to be adapted to cooperatives and better integrated with the goals of ecological agriculture. A key step is for tree crop operations to show economic feasibility over time, enabling this kind of co-op land ownership to compensate its stewards sufficiently.
  2. Land use change: A co-op can be the economic backbone to long-term land tenure and can navigate legal hurdles related to zoning, easements, and other issues over time. Other business models serve as economic vehicles for long-term land uses, including Timber Investment Management Organization (TIMO) and the broaoder Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) models. Weyerhaeuser (and formerly Plum Creek Timber) are REITs and are some of the largest land owners. The basic model of a REIT is that investors provide capital for a company to gain control and fund management of real estate, that company then manages real estate well to yield financial returns that increase over time, thus repaying investors with long-term low-risk low- to modest-yield dividends. That same model can apply to agroforestry management, as is being explored by Agroforestry Management LLC and Propagate Ventures LLC.
  3. Stewardship (what jobs are there in agroforestry?): Whether a cooperatively owned business or an investor-oriented REIT, the idea of a company having long-term land tenure helps address issues of point #3 (people expecting high mobility and not having capacity to access and commit to land). A passionate and skillful person could join a co-op and thus access, as a co-op land steward, a starting or ongoing agroforestry effort. Co-op land stewards could be part-time or full-time, seasonal or permanent, and could join in for a couple of years or make a multi-decade career out of it. As long as the co-op maintains a healthy core team and a viable business model, the long-term land tenure should not be affected by the coming-and-going of its land stewards.

Getting from A to B

…work in progress…

What do you think?