There was a time in our history when the government gave away land to whomsoever would farm it. According to the Homestead Act of 1862, if you were 21 or the head of a household and could put down $18, you could claim 160 acres in the West. You had to settle on it and farm it for 5 years, however, before you got final title. The act was not officially repealed until 1976 (ten years later in Alaska), by which time approximately 10% of the country had been given to farmers.
That act, and the political consensus behind it, were based on the belief that a free people, working their own small farms, were fundamental to a free country. Many Americans still feel that way.
Currently, however, our farming numbers have fallen to less than 2% of us, and high land prices bar anyone without significant capital from purchasing farmland. But determined individuals are finding other routes than land ownership to becoming a farmer. One of these is to farm on public land.
Municipal, state, and federal land is increasingly available for lease to farmers. Sometimes this is seen as the highest use of a piece of land. In other cases the primary use is something else, but farming fits as an additional use that provides secondary benefits to the public.
In this issue we explore that option. We look a little at the history of farm land ownership in the United States, analyze the common terms and conditions involved in farming on public land, and meet some of the people involved on both sides of that picture.
Leasing public land for farming has many advantages, including low-cost access and, often, available infrastructure improvements. It also has many constraints, including issues of public perception, lack of needed authority, limited options to expand, and few incentives for investment.
Is this an option for you? Does your community make its land available for farming? Is this a direction you would like to support as a citizen?