Urban farmers now opting to rent, not buy, land

The movement is creating a new generation of landless farmers

Courtesy of Elizabeth Johnston

Even those with little to no agricultural know-how might assume, and reasonably so, that to be a farmer, you have to own land. Turns out, that’s not the case. A study done by the National Young Farmer’s Coalition in 2011 found that access to land was one of the major obstacles facing new farmers, but some have found a way around the hurdle. Landless farmers, as they’re called, rent acreage from landowners who have no need or use for it. Atlanta farms like Crack in the Sidewalk Farmlet, which grows on land from a neighboring church, or Patchwork City Farms, whose land is owned by Atlanta public schools, are just a few of the local examples embracing “landless farming.”

One of the city’s most well-known landless farmers is Joe Reynolds of Love is Love Farm. A lack of capital to buy his own farm plus a need to relocate closer to the city pushed Reynolds to apply for the plot of farmland in the Decatur East Lake Commons co-housing community its residents had set aside for organic farming. He’s now the resident tenant farmer at Gaia Gardens in East Lake.

“Not having to buy land allows farmers to really hit the ground running with very little investment,” explains Reynolds. “Without taking out large loans, you can get your crops growing and learn whether or not farming is something you want to do.”

Currently, Reynolds grows and sells tomatoes, eggplant, edamame, peppers, sweet potatoes, squash and okra (summer crops) at East Lake Market, offers a CSA, and sells to restaurants like Farm Burger and Kimball House. Reynolds says his lease stipulates that he grow a variety of organic crops, (“so I can’t come in here and just say ‘sweet corn everywhere!’ ”) and that he offer those who live in the community first dibs to buy the food from their backyard.

Landless farming requires very little capital from the grower, but does depend on a carefully cultivated relationship with the owners of the land. When Reynolds wanted to plant blackberry bushes on the farm, he had to present his step-by-step plans and get permission from the landowners. While he admits that the extra step is a process, he understands, since the owners will still live on the land long after he may have moved on. 

The average age of a farmer, according to the USDA, is 57 and creeping upwards, but programs like the Farmer Landowner Match Program and the Center for Rural Affairs Land Link Program are helping a younger generation of farmers by providing databases of available farmland for rent. As Reynolds says, “In the beginning, my idea was to learn how to grow vegetables so I could buy a farm. I’m not sure that’s the only way of looking at it anymore.”