An agricultural ground lease defines the relationship between a land stewardship organization and the farmers who live on and farm the land. It governs an ownership arrangement in which both the farmer and their wider community retain an interests the farm.
The ground lease establishes the rights and responsibilities of each party to meet the project’s social goals and protect the significant community resources that are usually required to acquire the farm. Designed to be long-term (often 99 years, with an option to renew), the lease provides guidance for relationships designed to outlast those who drafted it. The lease creates a shared-equity structure where the stewardship organization retains ownership of the land while the farmer is able to invest and build equity in the farm infrastructure.
Adapted by Equity Trust from its use in affordable housing (which several Equity Trust founders played key roles in designing) this structure removes the land from the speculative market while reducing the farmer’s cost of access. Equity Trust created ground leases for some early farm protection projects including Roxbury Farm in Kinderhook, NY and Caretaker Farm in Williamstown, MA. Based on those experiences, Equity Trust published a model lease in 2009.
Since then, while assisting more farm protection projects, we have added new elements and developed guidance for adapting the model to different circumstances and needs. A ground lease addresses a wide range of issues in a legal framework, but ultimately it lays out a set of expectations between farmers who produce food on the land and the organization that holds that land on behalf of the wider community:
What level of production do the farmers commit to and how will that be measured? How will the land be cared for? What infrastructure can be built? Must the farmers reside on the property? Who else can live there? When it comes time to find a new farmer, who is eligible and who is responsible for selecting them? All this, and more, needs to be discussed and decided to create a successful long-term partnership.