A Look at Tenant Farming in Maryland

Written by Morgan Johnson, Staff Attorney

“Buy land—they aren’t making it anymore.” These words from Mark Twain underscore a concept that tenant farmers are well aware of—land is scarce. Scarcity drives up costs, and presents an imbalance in the power to choose what, when, and how changes may be made to farmland. Roughly 64% of all Maryland farmland is leased.1 Whether for climate, co-benefits, or to create increased stability, many farmers are choosing to adopt new conservation and stewardship practices. These practices have different returns on investment and take many forms such as reduced tillage, planting cover crops, using precision technology and advanced nutrient management.2 When these tenant farmers wish to take steps necessary to improve soil health and implement new practices, they must do so in a delicate dance with their land providers who often have final say on how the land is used. 

A recent Purdue University study showed that farmers who rent their land are less likely to adopt practices that improve soil and water quality. A co-author of the study told Indiana Public Radio that many farmers feel that there are barriers to adopting soil conservation practices, and that a lot of that has to do with their relationships with their landlords.3 The concept of land scarcity aggravates the challenges of the leasing relationship, as the market for leased farmland is currently very competitive, leading to some farmers feeling that they shouldn’t “rock the boat” with their landlord by asking to implement new practices. The co-author of the Purdue study noted that many farmers have one-year leases. By the time some conservation practices actually become established, landlords could rent the land to someone else or sell it, creating a sense of insecurity for farmers considering investments in new soils practices. 

These challenges extend to urban farmers in cities like Baltimore, too. Mariya Strauss, executive director of the Farm Alliance of Baltimore, which supports urban agriculture, told WYPR that leasing the land leaves the farmer vulnerable because the lease could be terminated after the farmer has invested years of sweat and money.4 Issues with tenant farming are most aggravated for farmers of color. Challenges to land ownership have harmed BIPOC (black, Indigenous and people of color) farmers and families for generations. These challenges have impacted the demographics of farming as a whole. In Maryland, only 1.4% of producers are Black, and only 1.25% of Maryland producers are Latinx.5 According to that same data set, only .3% of Maryland producers are Indigenous. This lack of racial equity and representation in farming stem from deep-rooted, systemic issues and policies that continue to deprive BIPOC owners of access to their ancestral farmlands. These policies include(d) colonization and removal6, heir property loss7, patterns of discrimination from the USDA and state agricultural agencies.8 For Black farmers in particular, statisticians and economists have estimated that the national scope of this land loss represents damages to Black wealth to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars.9

This systemic deprivation of land and access has pushed farmers of color into the system of tenant farming at a rate greater than that of their white counterparts. Looking specifically to Black farmers on the Delmarva Peninsula, a 2016 report by a Philadelphia-based Nonprofit, the Common Market, found that 86 principal operators out of the 6,882 across the Peninsula are Black.10 The Lower eastern Shore regions of Maryland and Virginia had the largest number of farms and acres with Black principal operators, particularly Northampton, Accomack, Somerset, Worcester, and Dorchester counties. However, the report noted that on the Eastern Shore, Black farm ownership is estimated to be only 1.3%. The report made it clear that many resources are needed to address this inequity. Beginner farmer training, recruiting programs and creative financing options such as revolving loan funds and conservation loan programs are needed to link Black farmers back to their land. The report also noted that for black families dealing with the risk of heir property loss, there is a critical need for legal support services to manage settlements and defend family land from predatory developers.

In the urban farming context, the city of Baltimore is home to at least three times as many Black-led farms as 10 years ago. However, most of these Black farmers do not own the land that they’re working. There’s only one or two Black–owned farms that the Baltimore Office of Sustainability is aware of.11 Furthermore, Black farmers are seeing less profits from their efforts, with Black farmers in Maryland making only .26% of the state’s total income for all farms in 2017. In a moment where farming and food systems are being critically assessed for equity and justice concerns, advocates are declaring that land ownership and leasing practices are ripe for repair, rebuilding and reparation.12

Researchers say that in order to get more farmers across the board to adopt healthy soils practices, landowners are going to have to become more involved with what happens on their farms. To materialize this involvement, tenant farmers and landowners are looking for sources of expertise and information. Facilitating conversations about these issues and creating access to knowledge and resources are critical in addressing the challenges farmers face across the state. The Maryland Agriculture Law Education Initiative (ALEI) began in 2013 to address farmers’ need for information regarding the laws which impact farmer operations. ALEI leverages the expertise of legal and extension specialists to directly inform farmers, stakeholders and policymakers about a wide array of legal issues that Maryland farmers face. 

Through their extensive program offerings, ALEI has provided a number of sessions specifically about protecting landowner investment through the implementation of healthy soils practices.14 In 2017, ALEI also published an Agricultural Conservation Leasing Guide, a resource for Maryland landowners and farmers who are interested in incorporating conservation practices into farm rental arrangements.15 This resource acknowledges and addresses the challenges to implementing conservation practices on leased land, and even provides detailed lease language for specific conservation practices. In addition to acknowledging the usefulness of this resource for farmers, Sarah Everhart, ALEI’s Senior Legal Specialist also noted that conservation practices outlined in the guide are paramount to meeting Maryland’s Bay cleanup goals.

Programmatic offerings and direct-to-farmer tools such as those provided by ALEI may hold an answer for how to widen the scope of access to information for farmers and landowners across the board. When looking from a justice and equity lens, land loss and the challenges of tenant farming are severely aggravated by issues race and class. Building equity into healthy soils practices will require a vast array of policies, resources and dialogues.