©1990 Richard Cartwright Austin
Because Redemption County was somewhat hilly and thus less well suited to farm consolidation than other counties in the region, the credit crisis had not struck here as swiftly. Nevertheless, for a decade farm credit banks and insurance companies had been foreclosing larger farms. More recently, the county office of the Farmers' Home Administration began a broad foreclosure campaign against smaller farmers who had dropped behind on mortgage payments. Passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement and an expanded "GATT" treaty on world trade, had made it clear that the Clinton administration would continue Republican policies to reduce agricultural trade restrictions and farm protections, opening world markets for the benefit of large producers. Redemption County would probably compete poorly, but even if farms here were consolidated further and devoted to export commodities, the result would be continued declines in population, economic vitality, and local culture, coupled with intensified abuse of the land.
The new plan required a great deal of money, for at the beginning the Covenant Community Trust, as it was called, needed to raise the capital for land reform without access to governmental tax receipts. The three leaders enlisted the participation of several Christian denominations, and then two large philanthropic foundations that supported agricultural policy research agreed to provide major funding if large tracts of land and other properties could be assembled. Another breakthrough came when the president of an insurance company took personal interest in the project. He arranged a land swap among several banks and insurers who together held about a fifth of the county's property in foreclosures, so substantial acreage could be optioned to the trust.
Meanwhile, the organizers led intense and often heated discussions across Redemption County. The plan offered immediate relief to farmers who were overwhelmed by debt and promised economic growth for which the county had longed, but the proposal was unconditional and unfamiliar, and it would encourage an influx of people of uncertain race and background. After many local church congregations voted to support the plan and welcome new people, and the trustees of both colleges agreed to direct their educational programs to the effort, the county Board of Supervisors also resolved to cooperate.
These were the goals of the Covenant Community, as it came to be called:
* To make land and shelter available to those who need them at a price they can afford
* To modify traditional property rights on these lands in the interest of environmental integrity
* To provide training in new farming techniques and other necessary trades
* To establish networks of neighborhood support and economic discipline based upon voluntary commitment rather than collective ownership or the pressure of debt
* To give preferential incentives for trade and exchange within the community in order to build a county economy with some self-sufficiency and a culture with some resiliency
* To inspire the spread of such values in American society
The pages that follow explain how these goals were pursued.