Jamie Baxter


The legal institutions relevant to farmland succession—defined as the transfer of property in and control over farmland—are increasingly important determinants of sustainable environmental outcomes on modern farms. The history of farmland succession has been written, by and large, through extra-legal processes of transfer and inheritance between generations of close family relations. This familiar “family farm” model, however, is rapidly being replaced by succession arrangements between non-relatives, often strangers, with entrant farmers from non-agricultural backgrounds. As a growing number of current farmers retire and seek creative ways to transfer control and ownership of their farms, the availability and content of property arrangements on farmlands acquire a new significance. The resulting “formalization” of farmland succession places greater demands on suitable to a wider diversity of needs, particularly among small farmers, and to consider the impacts of these arrangements for sustainable food systems over the longer term. Environmental degradation of farmland resources and surrounding ecosystems in Ontario, Canada—the focus of this study—and elsewhere is by now a well-established trend. This result, it seems, is aligned with the eroded perception that farmlands are no longer “natural” resources at all. As agricultural products are increasingly treated like any other mass-produced commodity, their sites of production are likewise distinguished from, and placed in opposition to, the natural environment. One feature of this dissociation between agriculture and the environment is that farmlands and food production are, as Wendell Berry describes, divorced from their historical contexts: To the extent that we participate in the industrial economy, we do not know the histories of our families or of our habits or of our meals. This is an economy, and in fact a culture, of the one-night stand. I had a good time,” says the industrial lover, “but don’t ask me my last name.” Just so, the industrial enter says to the svelte hog, “We’ll be together at breakfast. I don’t want to see you before then, and I won’t care to remember you afterwards.” In part, the new social, economic and political realities of farm production are now being constructed through the legal institutions and instruments that determine paths of farmland succession. Berry reminds us that attention to the way that these processes have been carried out in the past, as well s the ways in which they are changing, can help to reconnect food production with positive environmental outcomes, including reduced reliance on harmful pesticides and other chemical inputs, improved soil, air and water quality management, increased biodiversity, and a reduced threat of farmland loss. In this Essay, I argue that when farmland tenure for entrant farmers is made more secure, they will have better incentives to engage practices and investments that produce these environmental benefits, and they will have improved capacity to achieve this through access to land and credit markets. Part II of this Essay describes the modern socioeconomic context of farming in my case study of the province of Ontario in Canada and discusses the specific content of “environmental benefits” to which farmland tenure policies should be directed. Part III outlines briefly how farmland succession has evolved from the family farm model. Part IV develops an account of the legal institutions connecting farmland tenure security and positive environmental outcomes, which leads to an evaluation, in Part V, of environmental impacts of various land tenure arrangements available to parties to succession agreements. Finally, in Part VI, some of institutional conditions surrounding land tenure at the municipal level are discussed.

First Page