One Million Acres Conserved ~ 100 Young Ranchers Working the Land ~ Ten Year Vision
The Agrarian Freedom Project works to conserve the West’s open, working landscapes. The Project is an entrepreneurial venture designed to connect young, innovative ranchers with the financial and technical resources that are fundamental to revitalizing small-scale ranching, rural agrarian economies and communities, and conservation stewardship of working lands in the West.
The economic instability of traditional ranching in the West leads to the conversion of ecologically valuable land, exclusion of young agrarians from the industry, and an environmentally and economically degraded industry.
The average age of ranchers in the West is 57 years, reflecting a shortage of young ranchers willing and able to take over an important stewardship role.
Over 50% of critically endangered ecosystems are grasslands, almost 25% are shrublands, and over half of federally listed threatened or endangered species have at least 81% of their habitat on private lands in the U.S. Therefore privately stewarded Western rangelands have a vital role to play in sustaining threatened and endangered species and in conserving functional ecological systems.
In recent years more than 4 million acres of agricultural land in the U.S. have been converted to developed uses. Pressure from residential and energy development leads to higher agricultural land values in the West. As a result, ‘land rich and cash poor,’ ranchers often resolve an increasingly complex array of financial tensions by simply selling their land and exiting the industry.
Land values are too high and profit margins too slim to justify land purchase for stewardship and production by young agrarians.
The AFP Solution
The Agrarian Freedom Project advances a two-pronged solution designed to enhance the evolution of traditional ranching and regional, agricultural economies away from instability toward resilience.
The Project facilitates this transformation by: 1) providing young agrarian entrepreneurs with a creative mechanism for financing productive, working rangelands and, 2) linking this financial mechanism to the capacity, tools and community necessary to incubate new ranch-based business models that operate at the intersection of sustainable agriculture, land stewardship, rural development and community leadership.
I. The Conservation Capital Fund
The Conservation Capital Fund is a creative financial mechanism that provides young, innovative ranchers with access to affordable start-up capital. By harnessing the collective financial resources of note-holding investors concerned about land conservation and the persistence of working landscapes, we blaze a path for young agrarians to reconnect with the land and carry long-term environmental stewardship into the future.
Impact-oriented investors purchase debt, not equity (title goes to the agrarian, investors hold the note) thereby providing successful applicants affordable access to land-acquisition capital.
Investors accept a modest direct cash return on investment, but receive the remainder of a competitive return in non-cash form. These “alternative revenue returns” come from the land itself (e.g. beef shares, access shares, hosted membership). When monetized, the aggregate return on investment approaches 9%, but in a form young agrarians can financially sustain.
Every deeded acre purchased with the Fund’s resources is put under conservation easement to secure the natural integrity and open landscape of each working property.
The Fund further ensures long-term stewardship by: 1) carefully selecting high capacity, innovative, young ranch managers; and, 2) connecting these successful applicants with the resources, tools, and mentorship necessary to develop and maintain a competitive edge in a marginal industry. Our program emphasizes proven best practices of land husbandry, business management, and financial planning.
Importantly, the Conservation Capital Fund is intended to empower young agrarian entrepreneurs, not to insulate them. Therefore, eligible individuals are expected to provide a meaningful financial stake (for example 10% of the land purchase) and bear the financial responsibility of repayment to their investors. Since these payments are estimated to be less than half of standard financing rates, the ability to “pencil” these agricultural business models is, for the first time in decades, within reach.
II. Capacity-building Program
Access to the Conservation Capital Fund by young ranchers is tied to a program designed to provide the resources, training and mentorship necessary to set young agrarians up for success as business owners and operators, land stewards and community leaders. At scale, this program will help grow the population of profitable, progressive ranchers across the West.
Access to training in financial planning and management, and best practices for rangeland health and resource management to bolster existing education and experience.
Mentoring resources for a range of needs including financial management, business planning, land and ranch management, niche marketing, collaborative entrepreneurship, and community leadership. Successful applicants will form diversified, 3-5 member advisory committees of seasoned professionals to help refine business plans, develop management and monitoring plans, and inform financial planning.
Every rancher to enter the program becomes part of a growing network of young agrarians facilitated by the Agrarian Freedom Project. This network will focus on building peer-to-peer learning platforms and an active community of young agrarians in the West.
Participation in the Project’s Capacity-building Program provides young ranchers with the tools and resources needed to incubate agricultural enterprises capable of adapting to changing social, political and environmental climates while upholding the highest standards for land, water, and livestock stewardship.
The Agrarian Freedom Project is a new initiative and we are in the early stages of development. To date we have 11 Founding Lenders. Our Advisory Committee is composed of six individuals with diverse backgrounds in ecology, restoration, marketing, rangeland health, ranch management, and finance. Over the past year, we have piloted the Conservation Capital Fund on a ranch property in Arizona.
The planned outcomes of our work for this initial year are listed below and will lay the foundation for fully launching the Project in 2015.
Piloted Conservation Capital Fund, iterated lessons learned and solutions identified
Finalized, legally defensible business plan, strategic plan, work plan, and rganizational structure
Annual operating budget and fundraising plan
Established advisory committee to lend expertise to the development of the Project.
Qualification criteria and vetting process for potential properties and young agrarian candidates
The Agrarian Freedom Project combines the power of affordable capital with the power of enlightened stewardship, establishing a secure future for the West’s open, working landscapes and opportunity for our next generation of agrarian entrepreneurs.