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May 062014
 
Sharecropping is often associated with poverty and exploitation as implied by this 1935 picture of cotton sharecroppers, but there's no reason why you can't create a fair and mutually beneficial agreement to allow third parties as tenants on your retreat acreage.

Sharecropping is often associated with poverty and exploitation as implied by this 1935 picture of cotton sharecroppers, but there’s no reason why you can’t create a fair and mutually beneficial agreement to allow third parties as tenants on your retreat acreage.

If you are fortunate, you have managed to secure a reasonably large lot for your retreat, and if you are very fortunate, the chances are your lot will be larger than what you could work yourself in terms of cultivating crops, grazing livestock, and so on, particularly in a future scenario where mechanical productivity aids like tractors are no longer available to help you in your work.

There are plenty of good reasons why you should wish to have a larger-than-you-can-handle lot size.  For example, it allows you to expand the number of people you admit to your retreat, because extra people can productively be put to work to provide food for themselves and extra for everyone else.  It also gives you a geographical buffer against natural disasters and unexpected misfortunes, ranging from fires to floods, infestations, and who knows what all else.  It also gives you a ‘buffer zone’ and some added isolation and security.

If the commonly held views are correct, if/when a major crisis destroys our society, it is likely there’ll be some sort of exodus of people from the cities and from the towns, too.  These people will be looking for land to settle on and live on, and when they see your large spread, they’ll feel entitled to take some ‘fair’ (in their eyes) portion of it for themselves, especially if it is land that is lying fallow and not being actively in production by yourself.

This is not just conjecture or speculation.  We confidently assert that it will happen, because there is plenty of historical precedence for such things – you only have to look back 150 years in our history to see plenty of examples of such things as our own west was settled.

This is the point where some preppers start to mutter darkly about weapons and tactics and all that sort of stuff.  We’re not so sure that’s the best response because there may likely be some downside to you and your family members if you and the other people truly do start trading shots, and in this type of future, with diminished access to any type of healthcare, and the essential role of everyone in your community, such things are likely to be more impactful than they already are now.

If you do this, you’ll be reliving the range ‘wars’ and recreating the tensions between the cattle barons and the homesteaders in the late 1800s during our country’s ‘cowboy’ era, and such altercations seldom brought any good to any of the people involved.

There’s another consideration, as well.  If you choose to aggressively defend your land, it will be something you will need to do on an ongoing basis.  Some people will appear today, and after you beat them off, another group might appear tomorrow or next week.  You will need to win every one of these ‘battles’, and hopefully to do so bloodlessly too.  Sooner or later, you’ll find you’ll lose rather than win.  To be realistic rather than defeatist, you can’t fight against all 330 million of your fellow Americans (or even the massively smaller percentage who will actually come to your land).

If you have land that is not being used to best purpose at present, why not cooperate with such people and strive to create a win-win arrangement for you and them.  Why not encourage them to settle, and even help them get established.

If you do this, you populate your land and change the dynamic for future encounters – it is no longer a case of you being seen to be selfishly keeping to yourself more land than you can possibly need or use, but instead, it will be land that is being fully developed by people living on the land, which changes the moral equation from a dubious situation to one where you clearly hold the high ground, should other opportunists come along and seek to displace you and the people also sharing your land with you.

Now for the best part of all.  By bringing more people onto your land, you are creating a stronger, more robust and resilient community, and likely with a larger pool of talents and skills.  Furthermore, when you allow these people to start working parts of your land, you don’t just let them do this for free.  You of course charge them a ‘rental’ for the use of your land, and possibly for the use of your tools and other resources and facilities, and for seed, and so on.

Do we need to stress that any ‘rental’ that you charge must be fair, and must allow the people on your land to benefit as well as you.  If you get too greedy, you’ll change the dynamic from ‘win-win’ cooperation to a ‘win-lose’ confrontation that is counter-productive.  Think of it like a tax – we might grumble a bit, but we don’t mind paying a minimal tax when we can see fair value in return for it, but if we were to be slapped with a 90% tax, then many people in such cases feel completely justified in lying and cheating to avoid the tax, and/or will simply not work as hard because they see nearly all their earnings going to the government rather than flowing through to themselves.

Models for Sharing Your Land

There is nothing new about the concept of allowing other people to work part of your land.  For centuries, societies have had various arrangements, from feudal systems in the middle ages, through clan/crofting systems, to much more modern share-cropping, tenant farming, and farming cooperative arrangements.

Some people criticize some of these arrangements, and indeed, some can be validly criticized.  But the criticism should be understood as applying more to the specific allocations and shares rather than to the underlying methodology.  For example, something that might be fair on a 25/75 split might be grossly unfair if all the details were the same except for the split being changed to 75/25.

From your perspective, if you have land that you aren’t using and won’t be using, any sort of return on that land becomes a bonus, and apart from wanting to ensure you get a fair share, there is no need to drive too hard a bargain, particularly in view of the other benefits of growing your local support community.

The return you should expect also depends on what you are doing and how you are helping your new ‘tenants’.  If you simply allow them the use of your land and do nothing else, then a small share of whatever they produce is all you can fairly expect – maybe in the order of 10%.  But if you also provide housing, and if you give them a start by providing them some livestock or seed, and maybe you also provide them with tools and productivity enhancements, and perhaps you also provide some expertise and assistance in how to develop the land, and if you also provide them food until such time as they start to become self-supporting, then each of these value-adds on your part can be fairly reflected in a larger share of the outputs they create.

Needless to say, you should never create a scenario where it is impossible for your tenants to be self-supporting.  You don’t want to create too vast a wealth-inequality as between you and your tenants.  If you are enjoying huge feasts while they’re struggling to put any food on their table at all, that’s a recipe for a tenant uprising, and you truly don’t want that.

In centuries past, exploitive share-cropping arrangements survived because there was no precedent for other arrangements, and because all the power was controlled by the owners rather than by the tenants.  It took a very long time and much evolution of social values for the appallingly exploitive and unfair former arrangements to eventually die out.  We do not feel it would be easy or appropriate to seek a return to such times, because these days, everyone has much more egalitarian expectations for their personal wealth and well-being.

We urge you to be fair to the point of being generous with any such tenancy agreements you enter into.  There is truly not a lot of ‘cost’ to you in allowing your under-utilized land to be better utilized, and there’s an enormous amount of upside if you do so on a win-win basis that fairly rewards the tenant and encourages them to truly ‘treat the land as if it were their own’.

Some Suggested Issues to Record in an Agreement

We would suggest that you record your tenancy agreements formally, in writing, and in as rigorous and extensive a form as possible.  This is simply common sense and gives both you and your future tenant some certainty and protection.

We are not attorneys, and you probably should get a standard agreement blank formally drawn up by an attorney, in advance of any problems, and then use it for all tenancies that might come your way in the future, simply filling in the specific gaps and adjusting the provisions to suit each unique scenario.  So, not to give legal advice, but merely to provide some talking points and suggestions to consider when you discuss this with your attorney, an agreement should cover issues such as :

  • The area being let to your tenant, described both legally and in unambiguous terms that can be understood without recourse to district plans.
  • The term the tenant can have the land for, and on what basis the term can be extended subsequently, or ended prior to its scheduled expiration.
  • In what form should the land and anything else used by the tenant be returned to you at the expiry of the agreement.
  • What happens if the tenant dies or leaves prior to the expiry of the agreement – can the tenant pass the ‘lease’ on to someone else or does the land revert to you, and if the lease is being passed on (or sold) to someone else, who gets the proceeds of the sale.
  • What you are providing to the tenant over and above access to the land – initially and into the future.  How about things such as seed, fertilizer, water, tools and equipment, and storage?  Are there any buildings/sheds included?  What about energy – are you providing any energy in any form?
  • The tenant’s right to things that might come from or through your land such as water in particular, and similarly, your right to the same things that might come from or through the tenant’s land.
  • The tenant’s right of access to his land through your land and your obligations (if any) to maintain such accessways, and in turn, your right of access to your land through the tenant’s land, if applicable.
  • Fencing obligations between the tenant’s land, your land, and possibly other land – who is required to do what.
  • Liability for stray stock or other harm from other things kept on your land that intrudes on the tenant’s land and vice versa.  This might also extend to things like the possibly harmful effects of trees that shelter/shade the other person’s land, or the equally harmful effects if something on one party’s land is removed, causing impacts to the other party’s land (for example a wind break planting of trees, or vegetation that was stabilizing a hillside that once removed caused a landslide, and so on).
  • What the tenant’s obligations are to actually work the land following best practices and doing so full-time, and what the consequences would be if the tenant fails to meet these obligations.  The concept here is that if you are allowing someone to farm your land, you want to have that person do so sensibly and well, and fairly creating additional ‘wealth’ for both you and him.
  • What you will receive from the tenant in return for allowing the tenant to use your land (a share of whatever is produced, or money, or labor, or whatever else – and either a fixed amount or a varying amount, and how it is calculated).
  • If you are getting a share of a harvested crop, who gets to decide when the crop is harvested?  If you are getting a share of the proceeds after selling the crop, who gets to decide how and where it is sold – maybe something might be able to be sold for more money later on, but maybe the tenant (or you) needs the cash immediately – how is that resolved?
  • Will your share of whatever it is you are getting be delivered to you, or are you required to collect it from the field or from somewhere else, or will the tenant store it for you until you decide to collect it, or maybe, if it is something that will be sold on to other people, will the tenant deliver it to an appropriate market location?  For that matter, are you expected to participate in any crop harvesting, livestock slaughter, etc?
  • What aspects of the land use can the tenant independently decide and control and which aspects can you insist on being observed/followed/implemented – for example, can the tenant decide to switch crops from corn to potatoes, or to swap pigs for cows?  Or, for that matter, to swap from crops to animals (and of course, vice versa)?  Can the tenant decide to intensively farm land to the point where the soil fertility is harmed, or can you insist on rotating crops and leaving fields fallow some years?
  • What happens in a bad year if the tenant fails to get the yield he expects from the land, due to no fault of his own?  Maybe the tenant gets a larger share of the first amount of yield from the land, then a lesser share of the extra yield above that.
  • What happens in a good year if the tenant gets a better yield than anticipated?  Following on from the last question, maybe if the tenant gets a better than normal yield, he should get a larger share of the ‘bonus’ extra harvest, because you have now got all the return you fairly anticipated, and the tenant’s own hard labor and/or expertise should be fairly rewarded.
  • Any obligations the tenant has to source supplies from you or from designated suppliers?  On the one hand, you don’t want to play the trick of forcing tenants to buy from you at inflated prices, on the other hand, if you can combine your purchases of some items, maybe you can negotiate better prices for both you and your various tenants.  Also, maybe there are some issues with some suppliers that you are aware of that cause you to be wary of dealing with them and you want to ‘quality control’ your tenants’ actions to prevent them from buying bad product.
  • A process whereby any changes to any of the terms or shares/splits/payments can be negotiated or will be changed in the future.  No matter how diligently you, your attorneys, and also your tenant and his attorneys may work at creating a complete agreement to cover all future eventualities, for sure there will be unforeseen issues arise and assumptions that need to be corrected appearing from time to time, and you need a fair way to be able to negotiate changes that protects both you and the tenant.
  • Your rights of access and inspection to confirm and verify the tenant’s processes, procedures, and calculations of your entitled shares.
  • How you will resolve disputes and misunderstandings about the contents of the agreement (both if the formal legal system remains in place or if it fails) and who will pay the cost of such dispute adjudication.  The consequences and sanctions that either party can levy on the other in the event that one party is found not to be meeting their obligations under the agreement, and how they will be calculated.
  • A recitation of the overarching principles and laws under which the agreement is framed and the parties expect to be used to interpret the agreement in the case of any future disagreement.

Summary

Allowing third parties onto your land, and helping them work that land on a fair and mutually beneficial basis is, well, exactly that – fair and mutually beneficial.

Adding extra people, even at an arm’s length type of tenancy arrangement, can only help the viability of you and your immediate retreat family/community.  This type of tenancy arrangement is a useful midway point as between totally turning people away, at one extreme, and immediately welcoming them into your retreat as equal members at the other extreme.

It truly is a win-win, and so much so that you might choose to anticipate such an occurrence by adding some extra structures on parts of your land that would be suitable for such tenancies.

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David Spero[suffusion-the-author display='description']

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