Subsistence Land Elders Project

Building on more than ten years of listening, visioning, and active learning, Land in Common’s “Subsistence Land Elders Project” seeks to create a community-based pathway for the protection of some of Maine’s most iconic and important land parcels: the small subsistence-oriented farms, of the “Back-to-the-Land Movement.” Inspired by the Nearings and others, thousands of young people flocked to Maine in the 1970s to buy land and to seek active re-connection between humans and nature. While some of their experiments were short-lived, many developed into inspiring, place-based models for combining intimate environmental stewardship with the work of meeting human needs.

Today, these farms and homesteads are powerful beacons of hope for another way of living. But what will happen to these places when their long-time stewards pass on? Will they be sold to the highest bidder and lost to development? Will they be unaffordable for less affluent or racially-marginalized members of the next generations who seek to carry on the work of their elders? This is where Land in Common comes in: we are offering a long-term structure—a “commons”—into which these subsistence farms can be placed and through which they can be cared for and shared over the course of ensuing generations.

The need for this work is clear. Maine’s small, ecologically-diverse and culturally-rich subsistence farms are crucial elements in the bigger picture of developing and sustaining resilient, place-based, environmentally responsible communities. Yet their smaller-scale and unique mix of residential, agricultural, and wild land often pushes them “between the cracks” of current conservation efforts. Meanwhile, Maine’s elder gardeners, farmers, and land stewards are actively seeking solutions and often coming up short; we hear this consistently in conversations across the state.

How does it work? Through bequest, life estate, or sale (depending on circumstance and need) elders transfer their land to Land in Common. We, in turn, match this land with new long-term stewards who purchase the infrastructure at a discounted rate and lease the land on a 99-year basis, bound by conservation and infrastructure resale-limit covenants. This structure maintains affordability for lower-income land seekers (a key priority for us), generates a modest income stream to support future projects, protects the land from market speculation, and ensures the homestead’s sustainable use and care over time. Elders who wish to continue living on their land can be matched with communities of land stewards who can assist them with chores and/or elder care, in exchange for sharing the land.

Our work in the town of Greene exemplifies this strategy and serves as our proof-of-concept. Over the past ten years, we have worked with elder landowners to protect more than 250 acres of agricultural and wild land—including the entire watershed of the undeveloped 30-acre Berry Pond—and to secure its long-term stewardship by the next-generation homesteaders of the Wild Mountain Cooperative. After this deliberate and focused beginning, we are ready to scale up and launch the statewide Subsistence Land Elders Project.

Over the next year, we are raising funds to launch a new staff position to anchor this work. In the first year of the program, emphasis will be placed on statewide outreach, project intake and management, and on the selection of 1-2 priority parcels to pursue. This will complement work already in progress to build a state-wide Advisory Council made up of a diverse array of Maine conservation, agriculture, social justice, and Indigenous leaders, whose task (among other things) will be to help develop principles and systems for identifying appropriate candidates for the stewardship of newly acquired parcels.

If you would like to support this program, if you have ideas, or if you’d like to get involved, please let us know!