What brought you to this kind of work and has kept you engaged for your 32 years with American Farmland Trust (AFT)?
I started out as an environmental lawyer at the Environmental Defense Fund back in the early 1970’s. We were working on pesticides, water quality and quantity and wetlands, and the common thread that runs through all these issues is agriculture. So that was how I got interested in farming. Then I had a chance to go work on what may have been the first farmland preservation project in the country with The National Association of Counties. They had just gotten a Rockefeller grant to design and advance a national farmland protection policy that eventually became the Farmland Protection Policy Act of 1981.
I was doing that and pulling together information about what was going on with farmland protection in various places around the country, when I was approached by Doug Wheeler and Pat Noonan who had been asked by Peggy Rockefeller, AFT’s founder, to put together what was supposed to be a “Nature Conservancy for agriculture.” They asked me to serve as AFT’s first legal counsel as well as publications editor. I thought it was a great opportunity. Doug became AFT’s first president and Pat its eventual chairman. The rest is history.
How did you come to be AFT’s California director?
I have held a number of positions since joining AFT, including general counsel, national policy director and senior vice president. In each of these capacities I have been involved in California, the nation’s leading farm state. So, when I was asked in 2003 to take over our operation out here, I jumped at the chance. In my view, this is one place where AFT simply cannot afford to fail. One-eighth of U.S. agriculture is at stake, including more than half of our healthy fruits and vegetables. Urban sprawl was invented here and remains endemic, consuming 50,000 acres of farmland a year.
What accomplishment in the past year are you most proud of?
AFT helped launch a “greenprint,” which is intended to be a set of strategies for the conservation and sustainable management of land and water resources, in the San Joaquin Valley. This is California’s most important agricultural region, the southern half of the Central Valley. It’s like a fruit forest 250 miles long by 50 miles wide. In the spring when all the fruit, the almonds and the peaches and the plums everything are in bloom, it’s just astonishing. But it’s under siege from urban growth with a population of four million expected to reach nine million by mid-century.
We hope the “greenprint” will address the environmental challenges facing agriculture like maintaining an adequate irrigation water supply and help reinforce the idea that the farmland surrounding the Valley’s cities is not just white space on the map awaiting its “highest and best use.” In most cases, agriculture is the highest and best use. The “greenprint” will, thus, supplement something called the San Joaquin “Blueprint,” which is a plan for more compact, efficient urban development in which AFT also played a key role. It will save something like 150,000 acres of farmland that would otherwise have succumbed to urban sprawl in this region. That is, if local governments actually implement the plan. AFT has been digging in at the local level in an effort to get cities and counties to amend their land use plans to conform to the Blueprint. The City of Fresno, the biggest city in the Valley, is leading the way on this. It recently adopted a new plan that is a model for “smart growth” that will save farmland and reduce the greenhouse gases contributing to climate change. Through its Groundswell network, AFT helped rally a diverse group of hundreds of people who turned out at the hearing to encourage the city council to vote for the plan.
What’s the most important thing that can be done to save farmland in California?
In California, almost all the cities are surrounded by very productive, irreplaceable farmland. As they grow, we’re going to have to sacrifice some of that land so people can have places to live and work. But to keep the loss to a minimum, we need to use the land more efficiently. Cities ought to be thinking more like farmers, in terms of yield per acre. Farmers want to get the most crop they can on each acre they farm, that’s how they make money. Cities should be thinking in a similar way in terms of how many people, how many jobs, how many dollars of economic activity they can get out of each acre of farmland that is paved over. That will pay dividends for them, too, not only by saving farmland, but also by conserving water and energy and, perhaps most importantly, reducing the cost to taxpayers of providing public services to new development.
About the Author: Edward Thompson, Jr., California Director at American Farmland Trust has been with the organization since it was founded more than 30 years ago, serving in multiple positions and helping initiate a wide variety of projects.