September 1, 2005: Some folks repeat the old saying,
“Good fences make good neighbors.” I say, good neighbors
are cultivated just like the crops we grow. No matter where you farm
or what you grow or raise, good neighbors make all the hard work infinitely
more enjoyable. You can’t put a price tag on the feeling of
being part of a community. That’s what rural life is all about.
However as farming is changing, so is the fabric of rural life,
and that can put pressure on the relationships we have with our
neighbors. Today farms are either getting bigger or getting smaller.
Farming “in the middle” is increasingly tough. This
means that many of us are either tenants or landlords. In some areas,
competition to rent good farmland is fierce. Over the last 30 years,
as farms have grown in size, one operation eats up another in an
attempt to remain profitable. This growth often occurs by renting
land that someone else has chosen not to farm.
How can we manage these new relationships to preserve the integrity
of our communities? Good neighbors are still good neighbors and
long-term relationships are as important today as they were 30 years
In our area alone, there are many different types of landlord-tenant
relationships. Some landowners--including older, retiring farmers
without children to take over--rent out all their land. Some smaller
growers, particularly vegetable growers, have more land than they
need so they rent a portion of their farm out to another farmer.
Other farmers rent ground to farm even as they lease away small
pieces of their own property. These can be good situations for CSAs
or other small-scale start-up operations.
At times I’ve fallen into all of these categories. Over the
years The Rodale Institute has occasionally rented land from other
farmers in our neighborhood. Currently, we rent land out to one
of our neighbors, John Brubaker.
From my point of view I can tell you that the long term relationship
I have with the Brubakers is worth far more than the money that
changes hands. We often share equipment, labor and even a lunch
or two. We have formed a partnership to market our products that
benefits us both. By combining our commodities we can reduce our
trucking costs and better supply our customers with the quantities
and time schedules they need. We’ve been working together
for 30 years now and we both have benefited greatly from the relationship.
Building long-term relationships, whether you’re a landlord
or a tenant, is even more important if you are farming organically.
Improving the health of the soil takes many years of patience, hard
work and observation. Getting fields certified takes time and energy.
No one wants to put that time and energy into a piece of land only
to lose it to some other use. As farmers we need to be clear with
our landlords about what we do, how we do it, and why we’re
in it for the long haul, not just for short-term profits. Many land
owners are enthusiastic when they discover that organic farming
can actually increase the value of their property, that their soil
is being improved and that, as organic farmers, we are interested
in a long-term commitment to them and the land. That’s being
neighborly. Honesty and fairness are still highly valued in rural
Neighbors can be as close as the next house or as far away as the
absentee landlord in some other state. Either way we have a responsibility
to share with them the news of the farm. Cultivate your neighbors
and work hard to stay in touch with them. You’ll benefit,
they’ll benefit and ultimately—since every stitch in
the fabric of our community is important—we all benefit.
How is the relationship you have with your neighbors changing,
and how can we continue to support each other? Drop me a line and
let me know.
From One Farm to Another--or perhaps
I should say, From One Neighbor to Another