A grassroots effort to preserve farmland in West Virginia recently took its first step with the purchase of an 80-acre property in Fayette County.
The farm, known as New Roots Community Farm, was purchased by the recently formed West Virginia Agrarian Commons for the purpose of ensuring that the land on which the property sits will remain farmland for generations to come.
The West Virginia Agrarian Commons purchased the property for $258,000 after raising the funds through a crowdsource fundraising campaign.
Susanna Wheeler, a founding member and board member for West Virginia Agrarian Commons as well as farm director for the New Roots Community Farm, said in purchasing the property, the West Virginia Agrarian Common will “ensure that people are actively farming the property, that they're actively contributing to the stewardship of the land and growing food for their community.”
As a 501(c)2, which is a corporation created for the purpose of holding titles to properties, West Virginia Agrarian Commons will serve as the owners of the Fayette County farmland property, Wheeler said.
To ensure the future of the farmland property, Wheeler said the commons is required to hold onto the property, not sell it, and use it “strictly for the purposes of leasing for agriculture use,” which is where the current people running New Roots Community Farm come in.
Wheeler said the New Roots Community Farm is being converted into a nonprofit which will obtain a 99-year, secure, affordable and equity-building lease from the West Virginia Agrarian Commons so they can continue their work on the farm.
That work has included growing over 50,000 pounds of vegetables in the farm's first two production years, aggregating and distributing West Virginia goods from all over the state, hosting and attending food access markets, donating to local food banks and having a full community garden.
Over the past few years, Wheeler has also been able to expand her staff, which is dominated by females who come from a variety of different backgrounds. Plans to add to the staff are also in the works, Wheeler said.
Although the West Virginia Agrarian Commons was initially created for the purpose of purchasing the New Roots Community Farm, Wheeler said the goal is to be able to add more properties to the commons in order to further preserve agricultural land in the state.
“We see a lot of support for that around the state and around the nation, as demonstrated by the crowdsource fundraising campaign, and the number of contributions that came in,” she said. “We've been approached by other farmers in the state that are considering placing their property in the commons. Knowing that they will continue to farm and live out their stay there but they want to ensure that it's protected and a safe entity that will ensure that it's continued to be used for agricultural production and stewardship and community engagement.”
Wheeler said the plan has been taking shape since early 2020 with the support of an organization called the Agrarian Trust, which has aided similar endeavors in other parts of the country.
Formed in April 2016, the Agrarian Trust is a national land trust that focus on preserving land for organic food production.
“Our focus is decommodifying land, taking it forever off of the market,” said Kristina Villa, communications manager with the Agrarian Trust. “So where a normal typical conservation land trust just puts a conservation easement on a piece of property, the Agrarian Trust takes the land off of the market forever and makes it affordable for future generations of farmers.”
Villa said the West Virginia Agrarian Commons is one of 12 the Agrarian Trust has helped establish over the past six years.
She said their work typically focuses on “social justice aspects, like farmland access for people of color or Indigenous people who have been long left out of land access through bad borrowing practices, bad lending practices, land theft or dispossession.”
Villa said the first Agrarian Commons was the Little Jubba Central Maine Agrarian Commons, which was a result of efforts by the Somali Bantu Community Association of Maine.
She said the group of Somali Bantu refugees had been trying to get land in the area for many years but “they had encountered so much racism, people didn't even want to sell land to them.”
“The Agrarian Trust partnered with many different collaborators there and were able to secure them land security of their very own in Wales, Maine,” Villa said. “That was the very first one and it was a huge success.”
With the West Virginia Agrarian Commons, Villa said their focus has been more on “land justice.”
“Knowing that the Appalachian region has been long extracted from and exploited and that the resources have been shipped out to build up wealth in so many other areas of the country. This project was so important because the Appalachian region deserves support,” Villa said before getting choked up.
“I'm sorry, I'm getting really – I actually live in the Appalachian region and I live in Middle Tennessee and I just feel it so strongly that we deserve to be investing back into our communities. It is such a big turnaround for a community to have a place where they can connect with land and grow food and build wealth and health from that instead of from extractive mountaintop removal or mining or you name it.”
Despite assisting in endeavors throughout the country, Villa said all the land is owned by the local Agrarian Commons groups, which also make all the decisions for how the land is used.
“That's another really awesome aspect of the Agrarian Trust model and the Agrarian Commons model,” Villa said. “The power and authority resides in the local community.”
The inception of the farm now known as New Roots Community Farm began in 2016 when the Fayette County Farmland Protection Board (FCFPB) purchased the previously abandoned 84-acre farm, which was formerly the Whitlock Farm, for $495,000.
Two years later, the FCFPB leased the property to Fayette County Urban Renewal Authority, with an initial lease of five years.
The Fayette County Commission was also brought on board to manage some of the finances for the farm, including grants.
With so many different county entities having a say in the operation of the farm, including elected officials who would be subject to change over the years, Wheelers said it made sense to make alternative plans to ensure the overall success of the farm.
“(The county) has been critical in ensuring we have a successful foundation because we've got to kind of have these training wheels where we can step into a system where there are organizational structures, there's procedures and policies and we're not jumping out of the gate trying to develop this property ... but (the county) was not the appropriate place to house (New Roots Community Farm),” she said.
In order to obtain the property, Wheeler said the West Virginia Agrarian Common raised $258,000 to purchase it from the FCFPB.
Wheeler said the price of the property was determined through a “Yellow Book” appraisal, known formally as the Uniform Appraisal Standard for Federal Land Acquisitions.
She added that the reason for the vast difference between the appraised value and the original price paid for by the FCFPB was because of the agricultural easement placed on the property when the farmland protection board bought the property in 2016.
Generally the FCFPB works with existing farmers to place easements on property and pays those land owners for the loss of development potential on their property. Property easements can range from $1,200 to $3,600 per acre. Using nearly $500,000 saved to purchase easements, the FCFPB instead invested in the former Whitlock Farm property for the first time.
The FCFPB then placed an agricultural easement on the property with the intention of offering it for purchase through a public sale. By doing so, the land would be valued for agricultural purposes, lowering the overall price and making it more affordable for those wishing to farm the land.
Villa said finances are a huge problem for farmers looking to purchase farmland because land is valued at speculative and development prices, not agricultural prices.
“Farmland prices are astronomical, and farmers are completely shut out of the purchasing of farmland,” she said. “Because of all the financial barriers, 37 midsize farms close every single day.”
Wheeler said the goal of the West Virginia Agrarian Commons is to eliminate some of those financial burdens on farmers and give them opportunities which may have otherwise been out of reach.
“Our job is to try and reduce those barriers that folks face to being successful at farming,” she said. “We know that land access and land affordability is one of those issues. We also know that access to experiential hands-on education is a barrier. And we know that having strong reliable markets is a barrier. So we work on all of those issues and different capacities and different partnerships.”
With the purchase of the New Roots Community Farm property now complete, Wheeler said she looks forward to what the future holds for New Roots Community Farm and the West Virginia Agrarian Commons as part of its mission to support the development of a local and regional food economy.