Agraria: A Community Land Trust and Regenerative Agriculture Research Center

There is no clearer demonstration of the universe as a self-organizing system than the synchronistic process that led Community Solutions to be the sudden owner of Agraria, a farm on the western outskirts of Yellow Springs.

We learned on the Saturday afternoon of our February soils symposium that a property that included a sensitive local watershed—Jacoby Creek—had unexpectedly gone up for auction. The watershed is a source of drinking water for Xenia and Yellow Springs, and protecting it has been a goal of the village for over 40 years.

Throughout that weekend, and before, we’d been exploring ways to put our new soils work into practice.

Our Healthy Soils Symposium focused on active hope, highlighted by keynote, Didi Pershouse. Didi is the author of The Ecology of Care: Medicine, Agriculture, Money, and the Quiet Power of Human and Microbial Communities. She writes and teaches about how our ‘sterile’ model of care—killing everything that we see as pests—needs to be replaced by a ‘fertile’ model of care that builds healthy communities of soil, cells, and people.   

Symposium presenter Peter Bane enchanted us with his drawings of water and carbon cycles, helping us to visually and viscerally link our care of the soil to larger water and climate systems. We also heard from many local farmers, gardeners, and researchers about their ongoing relationships with their land.

By Saturday afternoon, the conference room at Antioch College was abuzz with ideas of how we might move forward as a region to demonstrate what we were learning.

The farm that the Jacoby traversed was a demonstration opportunity on a grand scale. But it was not until one of our members stepped up with an early promise of investment that the dream of bidding on the property began to take hold. Two weeks later—with the incredible support of an entrepreneurial board of directors; a hard-working and flexible staff; investment promises from several friends and members; commitments of conservation monies from the Village of Yellow Springs and the Tecumseh Land Trust; and the knowledge of our historical organizational weight—we took the leap and purchased 128 acres of the Jacoby property. It came complete with house, barn, workshop, fields, streams, and brambly copses threaded throughout.

While the purchase of the farm feels like an unexpected leap into the future, it is clear that we have been preparing for this for the past 75 years. Arthur Morgan was a philosophical and practical father of the Community Land Trust model and was recently inducted into the Community Land Trust Hall of Fame. His son, Griscom, founded the Vale and Celo Intentional Communities, both of which continue to flourish. And Griscom’s daughter, Faith Morgan, and Pat Murphy dreamed of a place—Agraria—where residents could do small-scale farming and live in community in energy-efficient homes.  

More recently, our board and membership settled on five strategic focus areas, with Regenerative Land Use front and center. For the past few years, we have been educating ourselves about healthy soils through workshops and trainings across the country and in Yellow Springs. We have also built up partnerships with local and national colleagues around soil health and regenerative soils practices.

As part of our Community Economics focus, we had convened a group of colleagues from the village, local foundations, and the Yellow Springs Credit Union, to explore how to build the community's capacity to invest locally. It was the connections made through this group that enabled us to partner with the Credit Union on a linked deposit strategy—a strategy that is enabling our supporters to use their funds as surety for a line of credit for the farm purchase and early expenses.

All these preparations were in place, but we still could not have predicted how they might manifest into such a grand vision. Now that we are on the other side of closing on the property, and on the cusp of a new organizational future, it is obvious that our agrarian community land trust has been made possible by the 77-year-old community of trust that’s been built within the organization, within Yellow Springs, and within our organizational membership.

Why Soil?

Across the planet, farmers, researchers, economists, activists, and community members are linking global crises like hunger, climate change, refugees, and war, to the degradation of soil. Historically, many if not all of civilizational collapses can be linked to soil degradation.

Locally and nationally, depleted soils add to the economic challenges of conventional farmers. On Agraria, 75% of our topsoil has been lost, with erosion and depleted nutrients adding to the challenge. Soil and nutrient run-off lead to widespread algal blooms and dead zones in lakes, rivers, and water basins, contributing to water woes. Many researchers also link exponential growth in some chronic diseases to pesticide residues and nutrient-poor soils.  

Yet, new understanding about soil biology and the incredible capacity of regenerated soils to heal ecosystems are sparking hope—again on a planetary scale. In Australia, China, across Africa and other continents, small and massive regeneration projects are demonstrating the possibilities inherent in healthy soil biology.

This hope underlay the United Nations declaration of 2015 as “The International Year of Soils,” as well as the inclusion of carbon-rich soil as an important climate mitigation strategy in recent international climate accords. Twelve of the eighteen most promising tools to reduce atmospheric carbon are land based.

Regionally, many farmers are taking the lead in practices that build carbon and healthy soil biology. David Brandt, a carbon farmer, Community Solutions conference presenter, and Agraria adviser, has been experimenting with cover crops for over forty years, and has built his Eastern Ohio soil carbon content from 1% to 8%. Other strategies like rotational grazing, perennial pastures, silvopasture, and agroforestry are being studied in farms and research plots across the country and the globe.

Agraria

Agraria is 128 acres of rolling farmland. Now that spring is here, the trees and bushes are sprouting yellow and green, wildflowers line the paths, and birdsong and the tracks of wildlife remind us of our fellow residents. On the property frontage on E. Dayton-Yellow Springs Road, there’s a wooden Banker’s Barn circa 1920 with approximately 7000 square feet of space on two floors and a loft. There is also a home and a workshop, and yards with lilac and blackberry bushes.

Our overarching vision of Agraria is that it will serve as a multi-functional teaching and research farm that models best practices in soil regeneration.   

The land has been farmed conventionally, most recently planted in corn. We have just conducted an extensive series of soil tests—including for nutrient levels, soil respiration, and the presence of heavy metals and oil. In the next few weeks, we will be planting cover crops in partnership with David and Ann Brandt of Walnut Creek Seeds, and local farmers Jim and Brian Clem. We’ll also be planting a tree/hedge barrier on some of the property edges. We hope to graze animals late this summer on about half of the land.  

Much of the next several months will be spent developing plans for the farm, including: Heritage and perennial grains

  • Biodynamic vegetable gardens

  • Hedgerows and edge planting

  • Silvopasture

  • Pastured animals.

We also plan to develop a small community of homes for resident farmers. Concurrently, the Nature Conservancy, in partnership with the Tecumseh Land Trust, will be developing a restoration plan for Jacoby Creek that includes removing honeysuckle, allowing the stream to find its natural meandering state, and planting native species in the riparian barrier.

Education, research, and community outreach are woven throughout our project plans. In addition to the partnerships mentioned below, we are documenting our interests in Agraria and soil restoration in a soil podcast series, and in Peter Bane’s book on soils and water cycling. Dennie Eagleson, a local photographer, is recording the transformation of the soils and the landscape through a longitudinal photographic series. Further soils conference presentations and field days are in the works.

This summer and fall we are visiting several possible models for Agraria—including Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Virginia, Mark Shepard’s New Forest Farm in Wisconsin, and the Land Institute in Kansas.

Collaborative Opportunities

We are fortunate to live in a rich agricultural and educational landscape. We have been working with Central State University, an Historically Black University and recent land grant institution, Antioch College, and regional farmers, on grants related to organic transition and farming internships.

We are also exploring research and educational activities with the Yellow Springs Schools, a national leader in Project Based learning (PBL). This spring we partnered with a third-grade Mills Lawn class on a soil PBL activity—planting underpants (yes, underpants) in the schoolyard to assess soil microbial activity. We have also partnered with schools and organizations in Springfield on school gardens and urban farm education, and look forward to expanding these connections.

OEFFA—the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association—has served in an advisory and cheerleading role in our soils work, and we look forward to research, education, and grant partnerships with this visionary organization.

With funding from the William Beale family, a biochar pilot project could find its culmination in the use of biochar-infused compost on Agraria and partnering farms.   

We also look forward to collaborations with the Soil Carbon Coalition, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance, Healthy Soils Australia, and citizen scientists.

Our research into soil fertility, perennial crops, and agroecosystems also interweaves with larger questions of community economics—creating strategies to help conventional farmers transition to healthier practices, and urban gardeners to build healthy soil. We’ll be exploring ways that our work on Agraria can inform and support our Springfield food system work, for which we were recently awarded two Americorps VISTAS.

Getting Involved

Buying Agraria is just the first step of our multi-faceted journey, and we would love to share next steps with you. A charrette on May 20th was an opportunity for friends and neighbors to share their ideas about educational, research, and outreach opportunities.

We will also be hosting volunteer days throughout the summer and fall—and could use your help with trail clearing, tree planting, yardwork and painting.  

We are hosting a celebration dinner with music and storytelling on Saturday, August 19th, you can find the Facebook Event here.  And we will be hosting farm tours and workshops during our Economics of Happiness Conference on October 20th-21st.

Donations of all shapes and sizes are welcome! We need a slew of shovels, a tractor, other farm and garden equipment, small and large investments, etc. Our Generosity campaign is designed to raise funds for early farm expenses, including our second cover crop planting, our second round of soil testing, and farm fencing.  

Please consider an investment in Agraria. Early funding will enable us to plan for the long term. For more information on how you can help, please call or email us, or visit the Agraria link on the Community Solutions website. We look forward to growing this dream with you.