Author Archives: Cris Coffin

Planning for Food and Agriculture in New England: An Interview with Cris Coffin, New England Director, American Farmland Trust

What brought you to American Farmland Trust (AFT) and has kept you engaged in your work over the past 11 years?

I was first introduced to AFT when our former president, Ralph Grossi, along with AFT Special Advisor Norm Berg, came to discuss Farm Bill conservation programs with my then boss, Senator Herb Kohl.  I was impressed that AFT clearly cared about both the environment and farmers—not just one or the other.    I continue to feel that way.  AFT fills an important niche in bridging the divide between the agriculture and environmental communities, and we are able to do that, in part, because we have a staff that knows and understands agriculture.   I have great colleagues,  and their  expertise and commitment to those things that AFT works on makes it a wonderful organization to work for.

What would you say one of your greatest accomplishments at AFT was in 2012?

This past year has been one where AFT has focused our work at the regional level.  We embarked on an exciting regional policy project with the Northeast Sustainable Working Group and the Conservation Law Foundation.   We finished a regional milkshed study that looks at ways consumers and policymakers can support our region’s dairy farms.  We organized a regional farmland protection convening attended by our land trust and state and federal agency partners around the region, and started planning for a larger regional farmland convening in 2013.  And we continued our work with Farm to Institution in New England to build new markets for New England farmers and spur investment in the region’s food system infrastructure.

It’s been an exciting year, with so much interest and energy around the region on building New England’s food system infrastructure and fostering economic development in agriculture.   And with each of the  New England states focused on planning for agriculture and the food system, it’s a great opportunity to think holistically about the region’s farmland base and what it will take not only to stem the loss of productive farmland, but to put additional land back into production to grow the region’s food production capacity.

Brian Donahue at Brandeis University is working on an exciting vision about New England’s food future that imagines New England meeting at least half of its food needs in 50 years.  Since we now produce only 10 percent of the fruits and vegetables we eat in New England, and less than 50 percent of the dairy products, this would be an enormous change, but one that could have a very positive impact on our food security, our economy and our environment.  How much land will we need to get to this type of vision?  And how do we work as a region to keep farmland in farming, reclaim land for agriculture in an environmentally sustainable way, and recognize that agriculture can play a critical role in our region’s economy and environment?

What are some of your most relevant findings thus far in AFT’s efforts to identify policies to improve regional food resilience?

Our two-year regional policy project with the Conservation Law Foundation and the Northeast Sustainable Ag Working Group is looking across the food system to identify both the most significant challenges and the policy levers that are going to be the most impactful. There are a few I would point out.

One significant challenge—and this is not new—is farm profitability.  There are some very significant hurdles that farm businesses face that we simply have to address if we want to encourage a next generation of farmers and increase food production in the region.  Farm labor is a huge hurdle.  Increased and complex regulations around food safety are another.   Reducing costs and increasing efficiencies—in energy and other farm inputs, in processing and distribution—are others.

We are also looking at opportunities to make land more accessible and affordable to both established and new farmers.  A lot of landowners, including towns and land trusts, rent land to farmers but don’t always appreciate that some of the constraints they put on the use of that land make it challenging to farm.  A lot of land that is protected in this region is protected in such a way as to make it difficult to farm.  And for young farmers especially who don’t often have the resources to be able to purchase land, are there ways that might allow them to build some equity in a farm business on land that they may not own?  There’s a lot of good thinking being done on this issue through Land For Good’s regional Land Access Project which we’ve been involved in, and we want to use this policy project to highlight and gain traction on some new policy ideas and tools. .

What are the most important steps moving forward in 2013 for your work in New England?

One of the things that we are very excited about is having a regional convening in the first quarter of 2013 around farmland specifically.  The convening offers an opportunity to brainstorm around   regional collaboration and to showcase state and regional policies and projects that are making a difference that we think might be replicated across the region.  That conversation, and the work leading up to it and coming out of it, I hope will produce a needed action plan for the region around farmland.

Similarly, our new Farmland Advisors program, which we are doing jointly with AFT’s New York office, will be gearing up with webinars next spring and a conference next fall.  This program will be training 80 participants—agricultural service providers, state agency staff, and land trust representatives—about farmland access and farm transfer tools and strategies.  This is a way of taking what we’re learning from our regional policy project and the Land Access Project and getting information into the hands of the people who are working directly with farmers and landowners.

We will also stay involved in 2013 in both state and regional-level food system planning.  We’re excited that Massachusetts is about to embark on a statewide strategic food system planning effort, and that Connecticut will be rolling out its first recommendations associated with its agricultural planning efforts. Farmland loss has been significant in both these states, and we see these planning efforts as critical to building momentum for policies and investments that will help keep farmers on the land.

What do you think is one of the most critical parts of your work in New England?

We’re at an exciting point in time where policymakers and the general public want to support local farms and farming. We absolutely need to make the most of this opportunity.  We need to demonstrate that agriculture really can be an economic driver. We need to explain how investments in agriculture and farmland can be good for both the environment and for public health.  And in this age of competing demands on state, federal and private resources, we need especially to be strategic. How can we best leverage resources within and around the region?  What state and federal policies can we revamp to encourage smarter growth and less conversion of farmland? And what will really make the biggest difference in keeping farmers on the land over the next ten years? Fortunately, AFT has many great partners around New England, along with members and donors who share our vision and goals.  We look forward to working with them all in 2013!


About the Author: Cris Coffin is the New England Director for American Farmland Trust, where she leads efforts to promote farmland protection, farm viability and conservation practices in New England through research, outreach, advocacy and policy development at the local, state and national level.

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New England: A Year of Progress

For many of us, this year will be remembered for its weather. The January blizzard and record winter snowfalls. The mind-boggling flooding that followed Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. The wild Halloween snowstorm and its ensuing power losses. We were reminded that things we take for granted—like the rich productive farmland soils that have been farmed for centuries along the Deerfield River in Massachusetts—can disappear in a day down a river. We were reminded, too, of how important it is to have effective programs and policies in place to help farmers manage the inherent risk in farming so they can stay profitable and remain stewards of our vital working landscape.

This year, we worked with a wide variety of partners in the region to promote the critical importance of farms and farmland to New England’s economy, environment, public health, community character and livability. Here are a few highlights from our work across the region:

New England farmCreating a Vision for Rhode Island Farms and Food

With the Rhode Island Agricultural Partnership, we presented a new strategic plan for the state’s farms to Governor Lincoln Chaffee and state lawmakers at Rhode Island’s Agriculture Day in May. The new five-year plan, A Vision for Rhode Island Agriculture—the culmination of a year’s outreach to Rhode Island’s diverse agricultural community—will guide consumers and officials in building a stronger and more resilient food system and farm economy.

Connecting Farmers with Land in Connecticut

Faced with some of the highest farm real estate values in the country, farmers in Connecticut—especially those just beginning—often struggle to find productive and affordable farmland. Farmland ConneCTions: A Guide for Connecticut Towns, Land Trusts, and Institutions Using or Leasing Farmland, published by American Farmland Trust and the University of Connecticut, helps towns, institutions and land trusts navigate the process of leasing land to farmers or managing it for agricultural use.

Working Lands Alliance Secures Funding for Farmland Protection

With new governors in four of the six New England states, we worked to educate incoming administrations about the importance of state and federal funding for farmland protection, including—through the Working Lands Alliance—Connecticut governor Dannel Malloy. We were thrilled when Gov. Malloy and state lawmakers enacted a two-year bond package with $20 million for farmland protection, allowing continued progress toward the state’s goal of protecting 130,000 acres.

Cultivating Local Farms in Maine

In partnership with Maine Farmland Trust and the Mainewatch Institute, we produced a new guide to give communities practical ways to support local farms and keep farmland in farming. Cultivating Maine’s Agricultural Future provides examples of actions local officials and residents can take to protect farmland and make their towns more farm-friendly. Please contact Peggy McCabe in our New England Office at pmccabe@farmland.org for a free printed copy of the guide.

Scaling Up the Region’s Institutional Markets

New England’s 14 million consumers are demanding more locally grown foods, and the region’s institutions—including public and private schools, universities and hospitals—are looking for ways to meet that demand. This year, we were excited to help launch a new effort, the Farm to Institution in New England (FINE) project, taking a region-wide approach to expanding processing capacity, identifying distribution channels and best practices, and increasing institutional procurement of New England-grown foods.

A Look Ahead

Agriculture is rooted in New England’s history and is a critical force in guiding the region’s future. As we look to 2012, we will continue to work to support thriving farms throughout New England while improving access to healthy foods and growing the resiliency of our region’s farm and food system.


About the Author: Cris Coffin is the New England Director for American Farmland Trust, where she leads efforts to promote farmland protection, farm viability and conservation practices in New England through research, outreach, advocacy and policy development at the local, state and national level.

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A Vision. A Plan. A Healthy Future for Rhode Island Farms and Food.

Imagine a Rhode Island where:

  • Public officials and citizens alike understand the critical importance of farms and farmlands to the state’s economy, environment, public health, community character and livability.
  • Communities support and promote agriculture.
  • More, not less, farmland is under cultivation, meeting increased demand for Rhode Island-grown farm products.
  • Rhode Islanders at every income level have improved access to locally grown foods.
  • A sustainable and well-coordinated farm and food system encourages profitable farm businesses.

A new plan, produced by the Rhode Island Agricultural Partnership and facilitated by our New England office, seeks to make this vision a reality.

Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee at Agriculture Day.

Presented to Governor Lincoln Chafee and state lawmakers on May 12 at Agriculture Day, A Vision for Rhode Island Agriculture:Five Year Strategic Plan culminates a year of outreach to Rhode Island’s diverse agricultural community. More than 400 people participated in the planning process to identify opportunities and challenges for the state’s agricultural sector and to develop and prioritize goals and strategies.

We were happy to partner and help facilitate this planning process. A strong advocate of planning proactively for agriculture, we are engaged in planning at all levels of government. We have provided communities with tools and techniques to sustain local farms and farmland, as we’ve done with our guide Planning for Agriculture: A Guide for Connecticut Municipalities, and will be doing with an upcoming “Farm Tools” publication in Maine in collaboration with Maine Farmland Trust and the Mainewatch Institute. We have also helped the six New England state Chief Agricultural Officers identify ways to increase production and consumption of New England-grown farm and food products through a regional Farm and Food Security Initiative.

Thanks to the leadership of the Rhode Island Agricultural Partnership and the van Beuren Charitable Foundation, Rhode Islanders now have a plan that lays out how consumers, communities, lawmakers and state agencies can build a stronger and more resilient food system and agricultural economy. We are pleased to have been part of this process, and look forward to working with our Rhode Island partners and members in the months and years ahead on implementing its strategies, helping to make their vision a reality.

(L to R): Stu Nunnery, RI Center for Agricultural Promotion and Education; Janet Coit, Director, RI Department of Environmental Management; Barbara van Beuren, van Beuren Charitable Foundation; Ken Ayars, Chief, RIDEM Division of Agriculture; Cris Coffin and Ben Bowell, American Farmland Trust

Among the findings in the Rhode Island plan are:

  • Small farms—those with less than $5,000 in annual sales—constitute the majority of Rhode Island farms, but generate less than one percent of the state’s agricultural sales.
  • Rhode Island leads the nation in its percent of direct-to-consumer sales. Marketing food and farm products directly to consumers is helping to improve farm profits.
  • In the last 25 years, Rhode Island lost 22 percent of its agricultural land to development. Of the state’s remaining 40,000 acres of cropland and pasture, only 10,000 acres are permanently protected.
  • Public and private institutions are buying more Rhode Island-grown products. Every school district in Rhode Island now serves some Rhode Island-grown foods. The volume of Rhode Island- raised food consumed in schools increased 10-fold between 2006 and 2010.
  • Lack of processing, marketing and distribution equipment and infrastructure is limiting the ability of Rhode Island’s farms to meet the demand for their products.
  • Farms contribute at least $100 million annually to the state’s economy—and this is a conservative estimate. Every dollar in farm product sales generates an additional dollar in economic activity statewide.
  • Rhode Islanders spend less than one percent of their food dollars on Rhode Island-grown food.

These findings point to many challenges, but also to numerous opportunities to help sustain local farms and farmland and to a healthy future for Rhode Island just as we’ve all imagined.


About the Author: Cris Coffin is the New England Director for American Farmland Trust, where she leads efforts to promote farmland protection, farm viability and conservation practices in New England through research, outreach, advocacy and policy development at the local, state and national level.

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