Installing or stabilizing farmers on communal lands, aligning new regulations with farm leases, feeding children and the elderly with organic and locally grown products, protecting public lands from run-off or flooding, optimizing the management of one’s inheritance .... These are all good reasons that motivate more and more elected officials of municipalities and public social welfare services, church administrations and other public bodies to take a close interest in their public agricultural heritage.
The project "Mobilizing public land" led by Terre-en-vue and CREDAL (a Belgian microcredit company) started in May 2021 as part of public programme to support local food production. It is financed by the Walloon regional government (Belgium).
In Wallonia, public land represents almost 8% of the total agricultural surface; it is owned by municipalities, the local public social welfare services (CPAS), the church, inter-municipal bodies, various public services, and others. All this land can be considered as a "common good" and, as it is financed by citizens, it can be considered as belonging to the citizens.
The implementation of a new law on farm leases that requires public bodies to set up written leases by 2025 (until now it wasn’t always the case), is an opportunity for these institutions to review in detail their agricultural heritage. It is also an opportunity for Terre-en-vue to accompany these municipalities, the local public social welfare services and all the others to define a truly "public agricultural land policy". Only a few public institutions have already developed such a policy, that adds another criteria (apart from the income related to rents).
Within the framework of this "public land mobilization" project, Terre-en-vue is developing jointly with the different institutions a set of objectives of how to manage the land. And they are many, relevant and well-anchored in the reality of the citizens (farmers and consumers) of their territory: it will be a question, among other things, of encouraging the installation of young farmers, of perpetuating access to land for certain others, of fighting against erosion or flooding, of reinforcing the ecological network, of supporting local and regional food production and of supplying citizens locally, and even of supporting job creation.
The objective of this project is to support public institutions in the inventory of public lands (few of them know and fully control their agricultural heritage), in their work contracting with farmers, in the allocation of land to farmers, and in the construction of projects serving citizens. It is truly an action research project, valuing the experiences and knowledge of each person and encouraging their mutualization. Terre-en-vue, with its partners, wants to be the facilitator of this re-mobilization of public lands.
The challenges are huge, but public landowners are motivated and aware; the general context is favourable to more localised agriculture and food production. Moreover, the "Covid" confinement has exacerbated this awareness.
Over the past years, there was a lot of awareness raising happening in this respect. In particular by those actors involved in the “food-belts” initiatives aiming to establish small scale food production serving nearby cities. Such kind of projects have emerged around many major Belgian cities.
An important issue is as well the issue of farm succession: according to some estimates, within 5 years, about 3500 farms in Belgium will (theoretically) be handed over as their farmers reaching retirement age. According to estimations, 60% of farmers aged over 60 (30% of them are over 70 years old) and about 50% in total will not have successors. Some of them are tenants of public land. Therefore, public landholders could potentially play a model role - by matching senior farmers with potential successors rather than dismantling their farms in favour of the expansion of neighbouring farm.
To date, Terre-en-vue has been in direct contact with more than 250 institutions (notably via webinars), including about 50 public bodies who have started the necessary steps to get things moving: understanding farmers’ land issues, carrying out an agricultural diagnosis, identifying, characterizing and mapping available and occupied parcels, researching leases and rental agreements, identifying agricultural project holders and stabilizing those with precarious contracts... to ultimately increase employment and agricultural production at the level of a municipality while meeting the municipality’s social, economic and environmental needs.
The challenge is great and the knowledge of this agricultural heritage is still insufficient. The regulatory tools need to be refined and improved, while the processes are complex and legally difficult. The public staff are motivated but need support, and the synergies between the actors in the field need to be strengthened more and more... This being said, the public institutions are aware that they have a role to play in supporting local agriculture and local food production. And we are grateful to them.
Françoise Ansay / Terre-en-vue, Terres publiques Project
francoise [at] terre-en-vue [dot] be / +32 487 25 60 91