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The Commons

The earth is our common home. Most, if not all, people would agree with this principal statement, at least conceptually and in the abstract. But what could be a comprehensive practical implementation of this principal statement that would be of social and economic benefit to all?

In practice, this principle can be realized through applying a concept known as the Commons. A commons is something that belongs to everyone equally, such as the earth’s atmosphere or its waterways, and the concept of the Commons can be applied to land use as well.

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

After consulting with some Common Ground USA members in other states who were knowledgeable about farmland issues, we crafted a proposal titled “Rent-sharing Farm Trust,” which borrows from a couple of different approaches.
The first approach from which it borrows is the basis underlying 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 it from the trust, but after the purchase, the homeowner only has title to the house; the underlying land is still owned by the trust. Thus, the homeowner then can borrow less to purchase the house because only the house must be financed, not the land on which it resides. The trust then charges about $30 in rent per month for the land itself. Houses purchased from the trust do not have to be clustered together; they can be scattered geographically.

Another approach from which our proposal borrowed is found in a plan for fighting climate change called “Carbon Fee and Dividend” or CFD. According to a CFD, people are charged for how much carbon they emit. The revenue collected from the carbon fee forms a fund from which every resident in a certain geographic area receives an equal dividend. The carbon fee serves as a deterrent to the amount of carbon people emit, while distributing the proceeds equally among the affected residents. This translates into practice the fact that the earth’s atmosphere belongs to and is for the benefit of everyone equally.

Through a Rent-sharing Farm Trust’s combination of these two approaches, full-market land rent would be collected from farmers who rent land from the trust, and the farmers would also have title to any buildings or improvements on the farmland. The farms could be spread across the state and the land rent collected from them would form a fund from which the trust’s expenses would be paid, while the surplus in the pool would be returned to the trust’s farmers as an equal rent credit.

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 and the remaining $300 would be split equally among the three farmers as a $100 rent credit. Therefore, the net rent would be $0 for Farm 1, $100 for Farm 2 and $200 for Farm 3.

This approach is similar to when heirs inherit land in common, meaning the land belongs to all the heirs equally. If the land is rented out, the heirs split the proceeds equally among themselves. 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 which result from the failure to practically apply the truth that the earth is our common home.

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