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Agrarian Commons

Agrarian Commons co-create resilient community-based food systems by stewarding land held in trust for agroecology, in perpetuity.

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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Agrarian Trust

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Agrarian Trust is working in collaboration with: Tennessee Local Food Summit – regional food system vision and development for Middle Tennessee. Vision Prize applicant. Jeff Poppen, Founder/Farmer. University of Tennessee, Knoxville – Knoxville TN food system development for foodshed in eastern Tennessee and foothills of Central Appalachia. Vision Prize applicant. Prof. Chad Hellwinckel, Agricultural Economics. Land Trust for Tennessee – strategic landowner outreach and farmland preservation for foodsheds in Middle and Eastern Tennessee and foothills of Central Appalachia. Emily Parish, Vice President. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) – Catawba Sustainability Center – agroecology training, demonstration, and technical support for farms in southwest Virginia and Central Appalachia. Adam Taylor, Manager/Farmer.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Weare, New Hampshire

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Central Appalachia and Middle Tennessee, from Nashville TN through the Appalachian Mountains to Roanoke VA, covering an area of 88,000 km^2

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Central Appalachia and Middle Tennessee are the first in a national network of Agrarian Commons being established by Agrarian Trust for community-based affordable food production in perpetuity. We are partnering with two well-established, transitioning farms, both nationally-recognized innovators in re-establishing vibrant local, organic food systems, to acquire 700 acres of land. These founding farms will serve as the core of a larger network of Agrarian Commons land to be held in trust for community food production to further the re-localization of a foodshed for 1.9 million residents of the Nashville TN region and other cities, towns and rural communities. We are in discussion with similar foothills farms in Central Appalachia within southwest Virginia. 

We chose this Place for its remarkable combination of cultural and ecological assets, immense social and economic challenges, and struggles over land justice and community sovereignty that are at once unique and universal. The intertwined stories of people and place unfolding here are rooted in: an incredible biodiversity of the Appalachian Mountain ecosystems; a rich and ancient woodland culture of the Cherokee; Indian Wars and Trail of Tears which drove them out; early setters' adaptations to a commons of woodlands and prairies; a smaller, shorter chapter of the brutal Antebellum slave economy; colonization and devastation of mountains and people for coal and timber interests; an agricultural boom and bust with cotton, tobacco and cattle; and the "Music City", Nashville. 

Agrarian Trust is committed to creating a secure land base in this Place for the next chapter to unfold -- a chapter we believe can heal past injustices and restore damaged ecologies, stewarding land as an Agrarian Commons to which we all belong, and nourishing everyone who calls this Place home, come what may. 

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Central Appalachia and Middle Tennessee (TN) together form a Place in the American South with interconnected geography, culture, and economy supporting rich, deeply rooted, and resilient food systems. This Place is famous for its country music capital, Nashville, the destruction of its land and people from the Cherokee Trail of Tears to the Appalachian Coal Fields, and its vast biodiverse wilderness of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited in the nation.

The deeper story of this Place, from the 6,000-ft peaks, hills and “hollers” of its 500 million-year-old mountains to the cities and rolling farms of the Cumberland Plateau, is its long heritage of food cultures that inextricably tie its people to the ecology of the land. Ancient harvests of wild ramps, chestnuts, and brook trout by woodland-dwelling Cherokee people. Tennessee whole-hog barbecue, biscuits and gravy, and bourbon whiskey from Scotch-Irish homesteaders. Collard greens, okra and Nashville Hot Chicken passed down from enslaved Africans.  All from crops and animals that thrived in the abundant rainfall, hot, humid summers, and mild winters of the temperate climate.

The culture and economy of Middle TN are tied to agriculture. Central Appalachia's are centered on timber, coal/gas, and mountain tourism. This is the Bible Belt, where evangelical Christianity and conservative politics prevail. Scotch-Irish settlers, a comparatively smaller slave economy, and low immigration from other countries result in a Middle TN population that is 75% white and 15% black, while 90% of Central Appalachians are white and 5% are black.

There is wealth in this Place. Its native forests, savannas and prairies were a natural inheritance supporting thriving indigenous cultures for thousands of years. Its mountain forests and minerals enrich absentee landowning companies shipping wood and fossil fuels to far-off cities. Its booming music industry creates superstars and jobs that keep the wealth circulating in the Nashville community. 

There is poverty in this Place. Its low income residents face food insecurity and hunger, from inner cities to coal fields. Of people in Middle TN and Central Appalachia respectively, 13% and 20% are food insecure, 9% and 15% are diabetic, and 65% are overweight or obese with half being children. 15% of population receives food stamps. Demand on food pantries has been high since the 2008 recession.

90% of the residents live in greater Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville and Roanoke, cities where residents experience social and economic realities similar to those in urban areas across the nation. The other 10% live in rural communities and mountain landscapes often with serious, interrelated social and economic challenges common in America’s countryside.

Collaborations between farmers, chefs and food hubs are looking to past and future food systems with new interpretations of seasonal, local Appalachian and Southern cuisine at restaurants in Nashville and Chattanooga and the pioneering Blackberry Farm Resort in TN, along with VA destinations such as Barbara Kingsolver and Steven Hopp's Harvest Table in Abingdon, and the Greenbrier Inn in White Sulfur Springs. 

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Central Appalachia and Middle TN lack planning for a community-based food system in which collaborative networks of farms and food businesses supply healthy, affordable, responsibly-grown foods to all people in the region as a basic human right. The disconnect between people and Place, urban and rural, wild and cultivated, ancient and modern is manifest in numerous, interrelated ways:

Environment: Current

- Import/Export Supply Chain. Most foods grown/raised here are exported, most foods consumed here are imported. Inefficient, unsustainable cost, waste and carbon footprint. 

- Urban sprawl/loss of farmland. In 2017 Nashville was the 3rd fastest growing region of the U.S., with 80 to 100 new residents daily. Continuing sprawl around all cities develops  productive farmland and undermines local food system potential.

Environment: Future

- an unpredictable climate of heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, floods. Coastal hurricanes and sea level rise create climate refugees moving inland to this Place. 

- large, absentee-investor owned GMO/industrial farms depleting and polluting soils and waterways are increasingly common in Middle TN, and many abandoned mountain farms return to forest. 

Diets: Current

- rates of obesity/overweight and diabetes are highest poorest rural and urban areas, and are directly tied to limited access to healthy foods.

Diets: Future

- malnourishment and hunger become more prevalent as population grows and long supply chains falter with changing climate.

Economics: Current

- Decline of farm profitability as tobacco phases out. Many area farm families rely on federal crop subsidies and off-farm jobs to make ends meet.

Economics: Future

- Financial crisis tied to climate change and global/national conflicts over food, water, fossil fuels, immigration/refugees

Culture: Current

- Agrarian Culture is fading due to aging farm population cashing out their land and few next generation farmers will take on hard work, financial risk, and high land costs. 

Culture: Future

- A large and rapid influx of climate refugees from coastal Southeastern cities introduces a diverse mix of  Caribbean, Latin American, African, and Asian cultures, foodways, and farming skills never experienced in this Place. A new Agrarian Culture. 

Technology: Current

- most of the region's food is produced with industrial agriculture and food processing heavily reliant on fossil-fuel technology (tractors, trucks, coal/gas power plants) with high social, environmental, economic costs. 

Technology: Future

- advances in "smart farming" technology, driven by federally subsidized R&D, favors large industrial GMO farms and indoor growing facilities disconnected from land other than high environmental and energy costs

Policy: Current

- federal, state, and county policies/programs favor business-as-usual food systems and large GMO/industrial farms, prioritizing corporate over community prosperity.

Policy: Future

- even as climate change destabilizes food, water, energy and financial sectors, federal, state, and county policies and programs continue in 2050 as described for 2020.


Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Agrarian Commons for Central Appalachia and Middle TN bring land and people together in ways that collaboratively engage all stakeholders in the community-based food system. 


- Short Supply Chain. Agrarian Commons are large enough (4,000+ acres), close enough to population centers (<25 miles), diverse and resilient enough to meet much of the region's food needs.

- Preserving Farmland and Farming. Agrarian Commons take land off the market for good, and hold it in trust for community benefit and farmer access. Land use policies mandate eco-villages and farms to reduce farmland loss.

- Climate Adaptation. Farmer cooperatives grow food on land leased from Agrarian Commons, plant varieties and raise animals adapted to hotter, drier conditions. They create food forests and food savannas that replicate diverse, resilient native ecosystems. 

- Competing Successfully for Land. While absentee-investors buy up farms for conventional agriculture, Agrarian Commons boards offer an alternative for community-minded farmers to gift or sell their land to support a new commons. 


- Obesity, diabetes, malnourishment and hunger are not a factor in this Place. Agrarian Commons boards partner with municipal governments to provide all residents with easy access to fresh, nutrient-dense "foodscapes." Affordable, fresh and value-added local foods are widely available in stores and markets. The high fat/salt/sugar processed food culprits are now uncommon and overpriced.


- Family farms losing money in 2020 raising cattle and commodity crops are now Agrarian Commons leasing land to farmer cooperatives, with no need for Federal crop subsidies or off-farm jobs.

- Relocalizing the food system circulates millions of dollars between customers and businesses, creating a buffer from financial crises.


- Agrarian Culture is alive and well with more young farmers and farm families than any time in the last 100 years. It is enhanced and diversified by climate refugees moving into the region, many of whom are farmers, food processors, cooks and restaurant owners bringing food traditions from around the world.


- short supply chains and appropriate technologies eliminate the wasted energy and labor of the inefficient transport systems and fossil fuel burning equipment. Agrarian Commons land is farmed with draft horses and efficient tractors run on biofuels. The availability of Agrarian Commons farmland and perennial cropping systems has reduced interest in "smart farming." 


- federal and state policies/programs continue to favor industrial farming-based food systems. Most county policies now support Agrarian Commons-based production, processing, distribution and sales. Land use policies for ecological planning and design have taken pressure off of farmland and ecosystems. Federal USDA grant dollars are used by some counties to purchase farmland to add to the Agrarian Commons. 

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Today, in 2050, community-based food systems across the country are thriving on a foundation of Agrarian Commons providing a secure, resilient land base for healthy food production, processing, and distribution. Agrarian Trust, a national 501(c)3 nonprofit land trust coordinates a network of Agrarian Commons in over 18 states across the country. Agrarian Commons are community-based 501(c)2 subsidiary landholding organizations with local boards of farmers and food system stakeholders.  Agrarian Commons board members represent the full spectrum of community food system stakeholders: farmers, food processors, distributors and retailers, chefs, public health officials, composters, dietitians, educators, and food writers. Owner-operator business cooperatives collaborate at every level of the food chain and with Agrarian Commons boards to ensure success. All are united in solidarity supporting agrarian community vitality to provide healthy food as a human right for all. 

The Agrarian Commons in Central Appalachia and Middle Tennessee are the first and most successful examples to date in providing a viable alternative to address the realities of farmland owner demographics, commodification of land and food production, wealth disparity, and farm viability in their region. In these areas, a new bioregional economy has emerged with more than 25 farms totaling over 4,000 acres. Native Americans, African Americans, recent immigrants and low income residents, many of whom belong to marginalized and excluded populations without equity in land, food, and community continue to directly benefit from these Agrarian Commons.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Welcome!  Let me give you a tour of our Central Appalachia and Middle TN food system in 2050. We are proud to be the first of 18 different Agrarian Commons and Agrarian Communities networks across the country under the guiding umbrella of Agrarian Trust, We are internationally recognized as a replicable, scaleable model for land reform in service of efficient, ecological, equity-driven food systems.  Let me show you why. 

Look around our region. This is a food ecosystem, serving a bioregional food economy within a defined foodshed. Most of the 15,000 acres leased for agroforestry and bison savannas by Agrarian Commons is still owned by local families, and 4,000+ acres of farmland we hold was gifted or purchased over the last 30 years from family farmers. They could not make a living raising beef cattle and commodity crops. They rejected lowball offers from absentee-investor owned GMO industrial agricorporations. They did not "Get Big or Get Out" and understood that selling out their land would sacrifice their community's food needs. "Big Ag", "Big Food", and "Big Pharma" corporations still run industrial farms in the Midwest, subsidized by federal and state governments and land-grant university support. In USDA-designated agricultural “sacrifice zones” they industrially raise, ship and sell high-cost livestock and GMO grains across the country to places that still have no community land based food system. Big Ag is failing. The soil and water are depleted and toxified, the land is desertified, and fuel costs exorbitant. 

Communities in our Place planned ahead 30 years ago to regain control of their land and create a full cycle supply chain and community-based food system on that land.  Owner-operator cooperative businesses run every level of our supply chains, connected to the land through long term leases and community governance. They operate collaboratively with a hyper-regional/ecological/efficient business model generating good livelihoods for many, and affordable good food for all. We see it as a natural evolution of traditional food cultures and village economies. 

Let's hear from food system stakeholders and Agrarian Commons board members who can share their experience. 

"Living soil is our wealth. I serve on the board of our Agrarian Commons, which leases land to our Compost Co-op. Our efficient network of facilities transforms all farm and food waste into organic compost. We distribute it with biodiesel trucks to build healthy, living soils everywhere food is grown."  - Jose Gonzolez, Director

"We raise meat animals within native food ecosystems. Our Native Meats Co-op runs American bison and wild turkey on thousands of acres of native prairie and savannas reclaimed and restored from commodity crop farms by the county government. Animals are processed at the abattoir we built on Agrarian Commons land. Our biodiesel trucks distribute fresh, frozen, and dried meats as staple foods directly to farmers markets, groceries, and food hubs. Hides are used by craft cooperatives for leather and wool goods." Alyssa Brown, Herd Manager

"We grow food forests. Edible Natives Co-op nurseries and forest plantings produce improved varieties of native chestnuts, hecans and butternuts, paw paws, persimmons and blueberries, healing overgrazed former pastures in southwest VA on land owned or leased by Agrarian Commons.  Most of these staple crops are sold to Nut Butter Co-op to be processed into nut butters, fruit jams, or dried for storage. Our nurseries sell tree stock throughout the region." - Michelle Yang, Horticulturist

"Healing our land is healing our people. As the county seat for Floyd County KY in former coal country, our town partners with the local food bank to offer free food for all, planting edible native trees and shrubs and creating community gardens anyone can use. We still have some food insecure households. What they can't harvest or grow they source from the food bank or purchase at markets with community dollars. Like my shirt? It's hemp, grown on that old strip mine, then woven and stitched by our Hemp Co-op in their new downtown mill." - Albert Simpson, Mayor

"As a chef-ambassador for our Agrarian Commons, I get to showcase our bioregional cuisine to guests at Blackberry Farm, and travel to inspire community-based food systems in parts of the country still stuck with Big Ag." - Ayisha Washington, Sous Chef

"Preventative care our mission at Mountain Health Hospital. We focus on active lifestyles and healthy diets to reduce prescription medications, surgeries, and cancer treatments. Our kitchens and cafeterias serve patients and employees nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables from our distributor, Fresh Food Hub Co-op. I serve on the board of our local Agrarian Commons because I see how good stewardship of land as a commons trickles up through the health of our entire community." Zahara Maathai, Dietary Specialist

"Know your farmer. Everyone shopping at any of our Saturday Market Co-op and Fresh Grocer Co-op locations is multitasking: building community, nourishing their family, supporting our economy by paying their owner-operator neighbors with community dollars, and making national grocery chains irrelevant. You've got to try the smoked trout arepas!" - Karan Singh, Market Manager

"Farm school matters! I just graduated with a degree in sheep herd health from the VA Tech's newest Sustainability Center in Abingdon, and I had 4 job offers! I've been hired to manage St. Croix sheep grazing on Agrarian Commons pasture under solar panels and in nut/fruit nurseries." Maria Lopez, Shepherd

"I can't tell you how thrilled I am to announce this $25 million Central Appalachia Farmland Fund, as part of the 2047 US Farm Bill -- which I co-wrote -- to allow for the purchase of Agrarian Commons land serving our communities!" - Janetta Jackson, US Senator from KY. 

Ecological Design

Our food system is working due in part to a key policy adopted by our regional Council of Governments: Ecological Design of Human Environments. Resettling the land continues with a population of over 10 million people now living in the region. Community resiliency planning and policies began in the 2020’s. Today, eco-cities, eco-towns, eco-villages, and eco-farm settlements are now the norm in the region. Cities and towns are re-designed to integrate ecology, energy and water efficiency, food production, and waste recycling. In every community, “streetscapes” are now “foodscapes” offering fresh, healthy food to all residents. 

Agroecology and Agroforestry

An integrated network of thousands of acres of agricultural land and hundreds of farms are held by and for communities as Agrarian Commons throughout the region to supply the majority of their food needs. Stewardship of all Agrarian Commons land follows agroecology practices: diverse/adaptable heirloom seeds, heritage animal breeds, support of native ecosystems, water catchment and storage. Producers, processors and educators collaboratively share knowledge. Systems focus on synergies, efficiencies, and multiple benefits. Recycling organic matter (compost) and water are paramount. 

Food producing ecosystems are prevalent, honoring Cherokee and early settler traditions by enhancing and mimicking the natural ecology of the region’s forests, savannas, and prairies and building a wealth of perennial staple foods. Bison are grazed on restored prairies and savannas. Trout are raised in mountain hatcheries. Food forests on Agrarian Commons owned or leased lands in mountains and riparian stream and river valleys follow landscape-scale agroforestry plans: selective thinning for timber and firewood and prescribed burning; cultivation of forest edibles such as wild ramps, nettles, edible and medicinal mushrooms and herbs; native edible fruit and nut trees.


Biodiverse higher elevation mountain forests, “cove forests” and stream valleys are permanently protected as vast wilderness for native wildlife and plant populations, watersheds, and natural recreation opportunities for residents.  

Food system stakeholders all play key roles. 

Production: Most people are involved in growing food for their families, and their neighborhoods, and many are employed on farms, forests and edible landscapes. Farm cooperatives and fruit/nut collectives share the costs of labor, equipment, marketing, and distribution of foods produced on the Agrarian Commons. 

Processing: Worker-owned food processing cooperatives on Agrarian Commons land are located strategically throughout the region, share in the business of efficiently creating value-added bioregional staple foods: bison jerky, canned trout, pickled/fermented vegetables, turkey soups, nut butters and fruit jams.  

Storage and Distribution: worker-owned food hub cooperatives on Agrarian Commons land distribute farm fresh and value added foods to groceries, schools and hospitals, and restaurants. 

Retail Sales: The majority of food sales are at weekly, all-local farmers markets run by farmer cooperatives and at consumer-owned natural grocery cooperatives.

Renewable Energy: The regional Council of Governments operates the energy grid with clean, renewable sources, conservation, appropriate technology and efficient “green tech” systems on municipal or Agrarian Commons land: micro-hydro from ponds/small reservoirs, micro-wind, and small solar grids. Federal renewable energy subsidies have been redirected from coal/nuclear.

Organic Waste and Waste Water Recycling: The Council of Governments manages waste with conservation and efficient recycling and cleansing of water, turns human waste into energy and compost and greywater through biodigesters and living machines, and mandated recycling of food and garden waste into compost,

So, as you can see, our Agrarian Commons is an Agrarian Community that has its priorities straight - we live within our ecological means to provide healthy food as a human right. It's that simple.  Long live the Agrarian Commons! 

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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Attachments (3)

AG LOS Rockefeller.pdf

Virginia Tech's Catawba Sustainability Center is collaborating with Agrarian Trust to train and educate farmers about the Agrarian Commons model and the role of agroecology in the food system.

FSVP Support for AC.pdf

Tennessee Local Food Summit is collaborating with Agrarian Trust to promote the Agrarian Commons model. They are also an applicant for the Food System Vision Prize.

LTT_LOS_Agrarian Trust.pdf

The Land Trust for Tennessee is collaborating with Agrarian Trust to preserve some farms as they are transferred into the Agrarian Commons.


Join the conversation:

Photo of David  Harper

Thank you Sofia. We're get updates added this week!

Photo of Sofia Lopez Nunez

Hi David, Great to see you joining the Prize!
We noticed your submission is missing responses in some questions. Feel free to make continue making changes and update it until January 31, 2020. We'd love to see a more developed version! This will help the community provide you with feedback and possibly even collaborate with you.