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Retiring on  the Commons (2017)

The essay discusses the concept of the commons as it applies to the question of how to provide security in retirement to a farmer who passes his the farm to succeeding generations.


Henning Sehmsdorf, S&S Homestead Farm


In 2004-5, I gave a presentation at a number of venues throughout Washington State to answer the question of how a self-sufficient, small-scale farmer makes a living (“The Economics of Food Self-Sufficiency”). In the thirteen years since then, S&S Homestead Farm has continued the agronomic and economic practices that will keep the farm sustainable indefinitely, while at the same time increasing farm acreage by purchasing two neighboring properties and expanding infrastructure to accommodate a growing educational program. The additional land purchased doubles acreage for grazing, hay, grain and forest production, and the refurbished houses on the newly acquired properties provide quality shelter for interns, apprentices and farm labor, including their families. The installation of a large catchment system and the activation of a new, productive well guarantee sufficient water supplies for agricultural and personal use for the foreseeable future. A roof mounted pv-system supplies the electrical needs of the farm, including some of the vehicles. Other infrastructure improvements include installation of additional electric fencing and underground water lines to supply pastures, purchase of equipment (mostly old but carefully restored) for grain and hay production, building a well-equipped shop for woodworking, and an adobe, wood-fired oven for baking long fermented breads from farm produced grains, as well as retrofitting the farm processing kitchen and adjoining barn into a state-licensed dairy facility. The improvements were paid for by farm-generated funds, federal grants (EQUIP), and investments by the farm owners from teaching retirement funds so that the farm continues to be debt-free.


Henning now being 80 years of age, and Elizabeth sixty-six, we are seriously thinking about retirement. The conventional thing to do would be to sell the farm – now probably worth a couple of million dollars – and “go and play shuffleboard in Florida.” Another option would be to optimize our investments here, rent out the houses and hire help to maintain our life on the “farm estate” at a reduced scale, without the burden of working the farm in its entirety. Neither of these two options are attractive to us, however, because in either case the farm would cease to exist as a self-supporting, ever evolving organism providing a livelihood for people, animals and plants to its fullest potential. Without successors to work and live on the farm, it would decline into a consumable resource to be used up in support of the owners’ retirement.


Over the last decade, a new (or rather, an old) perspective on intergenerational farm succession has emerged in public discourse, namely the idea of the commons. Historically, the idea of the commons is tied to various economic arrangements by which “commoners” support the elderly in retirement.  In “Utopia,” published in 1516, Thomas More suggests it as a way to help feudal farmers hurt by the conversion of common land for public use into private land for commercial use. In “Agrarian Justice” (1797), Thomas Paine supports retirement payments to be made to farming populations to compensate for the “loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property.” The idea reappears in the writings of French radicals, Bertrand Russell, and Martin Luther King. In pre-industrial agrarian Europe, support of the elderly from privately or commonly held land to be passed on to the succeeding generation took the form of traditional understandings which eventually became part of public law. In Norway, for example, the term føderåd (means of livelihood) referred to contractual entitlements in the form of food, on-farm housing and other services received by the retirees from the new farm owners. In Greece until quite recently, the “old-folk share or provision” (gerontomoiri) included not only shelter and food but also daily care such as washing the clothes of the elderly. Similarly, in Germany, “das Altenteilrecht”  (old folks’ share law) of 1900 spelled out in legal terms the benefits and obligations incumbent on a property to provide for the entitled “Altenteiler” (old folks shareholder). Indeed, that law is still current, as exemplified by the case of my younger sister whose husband inherited the parental farm in northern Germany on the terms that his father and mother give up control of the farm at the time of his marriage and move to an attractive villa (owned by the farm) on the edge of the village where they were supplied with a pension that included food from the farm and certain services. The same inheritance terms applied when my sister’s oldest son claimed the farm at the time of his own marriage and my sister and husband (then in his early sixties) moved into said villa on similar terms, repeating the succession pattern practiced ever since the farm was established by his family in the 1700s.


Interestingly, in the U.S. similar practices are still in use among the Amish, where parents retire as early as in their middle forties or fifties and hand control of the farm over to their adult children in exchange for being cared for the rest of their lives. It might be said that to the Amish even today, their idea of ownership overlaps with that of the commons, and their intergenerational succession traditions and practices are less focused on preserving private property rights than ensuring the continuity of “shared values and community identity” ( David Bollier (American activist, policy strategist, writer and Senior Fellow at the Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication), in a talk he gave at the Caux Forum for Human Security, near Montreux, Switzerland in 2011, described the commons as “a self-organized system by which communities manage resources (both depletable and replenishable) with minimal or no reliance on the Market or State,” and predicated on the obligation that “the wealth that we inherit or create together must pass on, undiminished or enhanced, to our children.” The inheritance practices among the Amish, involving secure retirement for the elders leaving the farm to their children accomplish that goal.


In 2016, the Lopez Island Land Trust established a new organization in our county, Lopez Island Farm Trust (LIFT), designed specifically to hold farm land in San Juan County in trust as a commons in order to build and secure a thriving local food system and culture in the county, forever. Henning and Elizabeth are proposing to gift their farm to the community commons through LIFT, while securing their own retirement and that of succeeding generations, in perpetuity.