Category Archives: Agriculture and Environment

Women Landowners and the Future of Agriculture

women23We’re witnessing a major demographic shift in agriculture. Over the next two decades, as aging farmers retire or leave their land to the next generation, 70 percent of the nation’s private farm and ranch land will likely change hands. One report predicts that women may own 75 percent of this transferred farmland.

Many of these women are non-farming landowners. A significant number of farm and ranch land owners in the United States – 42 percent – lease out their land for other people to operate.

Although they may not be in farming themselves, we know that non-farming landowners make many important decisions about their land that have a profound impact on the nation’s land stewardship and farm viability. For instance, these landowners have a say in what conservation practices take place on their land – affecting soils, water and the environment.

But research shows that women landowners who lease their land face greater gender barriers in managing their land for long-term sustainability. Their farming tenants may dismiss their conservation goals, or they may not know how to approach the resource management agencies (like Soil and Water Conservation Districts) for help.

At the same time, Iowa researchers discovered that women who lease farmland in their state tend to be deeply committed to healthy farmland, farm families and farm communities. If this trend holds for women in general, it makes them ideal partners in conservation across the nation after we overcome the obstacles they face.

To address this potential paradigm shift in land ownership, American Farmland Trust has a two-prong approach: find out more about how women who lease their land to others make decisions, and figure out the best way to get them the information they need.

Thanks to a timely investment from Rachel’s Network – a vibrant community of women at the intersection of environmental advocacy, philanthropy and women’s leadership – we partnered with Peggy Petrzelka at Utah State University (USU). She is a well-known expert on non-farming landowners. USDA’s Economic Research Service and The Mosaic Company Foundation also provided much-needed funding for this effort.

Through a survey and focus groups with women around the country, we are learning more about women landowners – which will help us and the nation’s resource management agencies give these women the tools they need to best take care of their land.

In Illinois and Indiana, we convened learning circles for women inspired by work the Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN) had done in Iowa. Women-only learning circles bring women landowners together with conservation professionals – also women – to have an informal discussion about their hopes and dreams for their land.

Over 50 percent of the women who attend these sessions take a conservation action within six months of attending a learning circle, according to WFAN findings. As a result of their value, we are supporting continued learning circles in both states while expanding them to Maryland and Virginia. AFT’s Farmland Information Center uses the findings from these circles to better provide the information and resources these landowners need.

Already through our focus groups we’ve uncovered many regional differences among women landowners in terms of how much land they own, whether they live on the land, what decisions they share with their tenants, and the particular challenges they face.

We will keep you apprised as this exciting project moves forward and as we gain insights that guide our work as the nation’s leading resource for saving the land and keeping it healthy. To learn more about our work with women landowners, visit www.farmland.org/programs/protection/Empowering-Women-Landowners.asp.

Click here to read the preliminary report on this project.

 

 

 

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Taking a Risk on the Farm Proves Economically Rewarding, Environmentally Beneficial

Three years before the Maryland Department of Agriculture revised nutrient management regulations a BMP Challenge crop adviser, Don Moore (AET Agricultural Consulting) took the initiative and partnered with American Farmland Trust and Agflex Inc. to work with seven farmers to inject or incorporate manure into the soil.  Manure injection or incorporation increases fertilizer efficiency, thus reducing potential nutrient loss from the field three ways.  When the manure is below, rather than on top of the soil, nitrogen rich ammonia gas can’t escape to the air making more of it available to the plant by as much as 20%. Secondly, the fertilizer is now located several inches closer to the plant roots. Finally, it is far less susceptible to being washed away in heavy spring rains. The potential is for this practice to allow the farmer to reduce the total amount of total fertilizer inputs mainly the chemical type put on mid-season, thus be, saving money and improving water quality.

Since manure incorporation with vertical tillage equipment such as an Aerway or Turbotill is a relatively new practice, the BMP Challenge comparisons were setup to determine whether incorporation would affect yields. In 2012, participants applied the same number of nitrogen credits across the entire field.  However, they reduced the amount of commercial fertilizer at sidedress on the manure incorporation acres.  The incorporation increased the nitrogen credit to offset the commercial fertilizer reduction. By the third year, the part of the field where manure was applied to the surface at the recommended rate was compared to the rest of the field that used incorporation and a reduced application rate based less ammonia escaping to the air.

Across the three years, incorporation showed an average increase in net returns by $6.00 per acre and a nitrogen reduction of 7 pounds.  Over-all the farmers saved more than 8,400 pounds of nitrogen applications. Five of seven participating farmers in the BMP Challenge demonstrations were interviewed last fall regarding their participation. Three have purchased new equipment. One is seriously considering it and the fifth has expanded use of vertical tillage to all his crop acres. According to Moore, “Throughout the entire BMP Challenge process, farmers demonstrated their willingness and eagerness to learn.  They want to learn about and adopt new technologies if they make good economic sense.  They are not willing to risk yield to experiment.  This is where the yield guarantee was important to them.  In this world of high commodity prices, and inputs that are equally as high, growers are hesitant to entertain additional risk.  No one is interested in over-application of nutrients.

Maryland state law now requires farmers to inject or incorporate manure and other organic nutrient sources into the soil within 48 hours of application.  The past three years of work on the Eastern Shore has provided important information to farmers and agricultural advisors as well. The BMP Challenge will be working with an expanded number of growers this year to transition from surface application to manure incorporation.

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Preserving Clean Water and Viable Farms in the Mid-Atlantic: An Interview with Jim Baird, Mid-Atlantic Director, American Farmland Trust

What brought you to American Farmland Trust (AFT) and has kept you engaged over the past five years?

I don’t have a farm background but I did overseas work for a long time in sustainable agriculture and community-based things was always part of that. Then I began working more in conservation and sustainability. Working in the Chesapeake Bay region at this point in time has been a profound experience. I see it as a challenge of figuring out how we work and play and grow food and live in this area yet still maintain an estuary that actually functions. It is a civilizational problem. It’s all over the world at the mouth of every major river basin. In this region we are at the cutting edge in figuring out how we do this.

I’m always struck by the amount of respect that comes with me into the room when I say that I’m with American Farmland Trust. I think our partners see us coming with good ideas, well thought through. Obviously we have a constituency and we advocate for them, but I think that we’re seen as honest brokers, people who are trying to make good policy, good decisions, make good things happen, not just advance our side of things. It’s really critical because farmland touches all of those interests so our partnerships are hugely important. A farmer we work with recently said that AFT is able to rise above the local politics that often derail good ideas because we have a national focus and a long perspective. We want what is best for farmland and farming over all.

As part of a coalition in Pennsylvania, AFT helped stop cuts for farmland preservation funds proposed by Governor Corbett. Can you expand upon that accomplishment?

It was a real victory. State budgets are tight everywhere and you look around and see other states where cuts were made yet Pennsylvania survived. The reason I think we were successful is because AFT has helped to build and support a very strong, broad coalition of farmers, agricultural groups and environmental people who are concerned about water and woods and the environmental side of things. And we all got together behind a Save the Farm coalition. We were well-organized and just had a good campaign. It resonated with Pennsylvanians who have shown their commitment to the idea and to pay to protect farmland for 30 years. We got them to speak up, write letters and make calls. We had a great response in the press. Ultimately the legislators listened and make a strong showing to the governor to say that this isn’t ok.

What are some big challenges AFT has faced in the Mid-Atlantic region over the past year?

I think we really need to nail down this issue of having farmland be adequately represented in the solution to this big issue of how do we live on the land in a way that is sustainable? And we need a new look at that because while all the reasons we have identified through the years for why farmland is important are all still true, we also have this heightened concern  about water quality.  We need to understand what role farmland and farmers plays in this realm and we articulate to people. They need to understand how much agriculture is part of the solution for this issue, too. And so this last year I’ve been working on making the case that farmland is essential for water quality so we can make it part of the policy solution.

There are so many uses for land and there are so many more near-term uses that seem more important like housing and transportation, stuff that people have to do on a daily basis. It feels to most people that the food, and the open space and the other benefits are just going to be there and there’s enough land. And we don’t realize how thin that is. That great animation we have about the earth being an apple and how thin, how precious and tiny the part that is farmland and the productive soils that we need are in comparison to the whole earth.

What was another great accomplishment of 2012?

One of the best things was getting a big acknowledgement for our work from the head of Penn State Extension [Dr. Doug Beegle], who is a renowned agronomist and soil scientist. He has been promoting sensible practices that help farmers meet their business need to be profitable and have good yields by being more precise and efficient in how they use nutrients, which helps clean the water. The approach that AFT uses, which we call the BMP Challenge, allows farmers to try out new practices risk free. They work with an expert person in the field to set up a comparison of this new practice compared to what they’ve been doing. Then if they lose money on the new practice, we promise to pay them the difference. It’s a guarantee that lets them sleep well at night because they know that they can try this thing, they can learn from it, and it’s not going to be a big loss for them economically. Having the head of extension at Penn State say, “I think this approach of AFT, this BMP challenge, is the perfect thing to use to get farmers to try out this soil testing practice,” that was great.

What do you think is one of the most important things to note about AFT’s work in the Mid-Atlantic region?

The thing that I keep coming back to is that people really need to have a better appreciation for what farmers are really thinking about and what goes into their decisions and how complex and nuanced those are. It’s a technical, complex profession. It’s just wonderful to sit in meetings with these farmers and hear them discuss their decision-making process. They really care about it. Obviously, it’s their livelihood but they’re working with nature every day and it’s complex. One of the things that I try to do is to get farmers in front of non-farmers and have them hear that.

It’s a highly technical and sophisticated knowledge-based career and it’s risky. You have got to be out there making decisions and spending money and going out on a limb for the whole year, and it’s only when you harvest that yield that you get your paycheck. You have so little control over most of what is important, which is rainfall and temperature. Whew, talk about living life on the edge!


Jim BairdAbout the Author: Jim Baird is Mid-Atlantic Director for the American Farmland Trust where he works to help maintain viable farms and clean water through the adoption of nutrient-related conservation practices and ensuring that farmer concerns are reflected in policy and program discussions.

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Ken Burns’ The Dust Bowl Reminder to Continue Investment in Farmland Conservation

“Out of the long list of nature’s gifts to man, none is perhaps so utterly essential to human life as soil.” – Hugh Hammond Bennett, first chief of the Soil Conservation Service

Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns’ latest project, “The Dust Bowl,” premiers on PBS on November 18-19. The film focuses on what PBS calls “the worst man made disaster in American history.”   Although the film centers on stories of generations past, many parallels exist between the circumstances that led to the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s and today. The U.S. is experiencing its second year of widespread, catastrophic drought with more than 64 percent of the nation in “moderate” or worse drought conditions. At the same time, farmers are being asked to feed a hungry world by maximizing production on every available acre.

While many factors contributed to the Dust Bowl, farmers today have advantages that did not exist back then. Most significant among them is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Established by the Soil Conservation Act in 1935, the NRCS (originally the Soil Conservation Service) is the federal agency whose mission is to help farmers improve, protect and conserve fragile natural resources like soil and water upon which we all depend.

Farmers today work in cooperation with NRCS and local soil and water conservation districts and have made great strides in protecting farmland, improving soil health and caring for the land.

The financial resources for these efforts come from the farm bill, a piece of legislation that Congress writes every five years to establish farm and food policy. Congress has an opportunity this year to extend and fund several key conservation programs through the farm bill.  American Farmland Trust has been actively engaged in this legislative process to craft conservation programs that are efficient and effective in delivering good conservation results on the landscape.

Lack of a farm bill will not only hamper the ability for farmers to make continued improvements but also poses potential setbacks. Farm bill conservation programs are proven farmland-protection programs. They give farmers the vital tools they need to provide multiple environmental benefits including protecting and improving the soil, keeping water clean and creating abundant wildlife habitat.

Maintaining and strengthening the conservation programs being considered in this year’s farm bill will help protect our soil and water for future generations.  We encourage you to watch Mr. Burns’ film, “The Dust Bowl,” and consider the importance of continued investment in federal farm conservation programs.

More information on “The Dust Bowl” including videos, photo galleries, interactive material and information on when you can view it on your local station is available on the PBS website: http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/dustbowl/


About the Author: Jeremy Peters is Director of Federal Policy at American Farmland Trust.

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Hot Fun in the Summer Time: Ear Leaf Tissue Testing

It was July, almost August. And was HOT. I was burrowing my way through six foot tall corn in 100 degree temperatures! Last month I told you about testing the soil to get a read on how much nitrogen (think plant food) there is next to the corn plants to help them grow. We did that BEFORE the farmer gave the corn any additional fertilizer which made it a Pre-Sidedress Nitrate Tests (PSNT).

As a crop advisor for the BMP Challenge, I revisited the fields at the end of July to take Ear Leaf Tissue Samples. The plant’s silk coming from the top of the ears is still yellow but just about to turn brown meaning it’s our last chance to check up on the health of the plants prior to harvest. Walking the length of the field (about two football fields with 6-foot corn means I hadn’t seen daylight for 30 minutes!) and I periodically pulled off a leaf, the one that grows at the base of the ear of corn, to collect samples for testing.  Being in the field also gave me a chance to examine the crop for signs of stress, such as withered leaves from drought, yellowed leaves due to low nitrogen and insects.

These samples taken in BMP Challenge enrolled fields come from two areas: first from the “check strip,” where the farmer had applied nitrogen at a rate of his or her own choosing, and then from the remainder of the field where the nitrogen rate was determined by the PSNT results.  The samples of ear leaves help backup the PSNT results, showing that the portion of the field that had received a reduced amount of fertilizer would still have adequate nitrogen to make it through harvest.  But maybe even more important, the ear leaf test provides another data point, another topic to discuss when we sit down as a group with the participating farmers after the harvest. As a crop advisor, I work to provide BMP Challenge enrolled farmers with all the information to ponder, discussing their observations and the test results against their yields to evaluate the use of best management practices on their field.

The PSNT and Ear Leaf tests just provide a snapshot of the nutrients available to the plants on the day the samples are taken. They give the farmer one more piece of the complex puzzle that is nitrogen fertilizer management.  Much research has been done over the last several decades to determine the amount of each nutrient that is necessary to support growth. Mother Nature is unpredictable and soil types differ from farm to farm, so each farmer must have their management strategies. At the same time, it is impossible for any single test or guideline to consistently provide the “right” answer about how much fertilizer a farmer should apply.  The main reason I was out in the summer heat, melting and collecting the ear leaf samples was to give each farmer one more measurement of their crop’s progress in order to evaluate the recommendations that we made to them after the PSNT.

When people my age leave Virginia Tech with an ag degree and look at today’s economy, they know they will have to be innovative in order to remain profitable if they want to farm  The “slippery fish” of nitrogen that I work with as a crop advisor requires extra attention; it’s risky and being wrong is expensive. AFT’s BMP Challenge program is providing access to tools and knowledge to help farmers better manage their fertilizer usage. By offering insurance, AFT is encouraging producers to try new practices on their fields—like the one I walked through that hot July day—and not lose sleep at night worrying about yield loss. Using fertilizer more efficiently meets the double bottom line that farmers want: to improve the water in the stream while getting the most corn at the least cost.



About the Author: Dana Gochenour is a farmer and freelance writer in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. She can be reached at dgochen@vt.edu.

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Setting the Course for Improved Water Quality: Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana Sign Groundbreaking Agreement to Protect Water and Support Farmers

Nestled on the north bank of the Ohio River, Cincinnati is a stone’s throw from the bluegrass of Kentucky and Indiana’s horizon of corn and soybean. This month, the city served as the perfect backdrop for representatives from all three states to sign a historic agreement that will set the tone for the future of water quality across the region.

Ohio River

The groundbreaking agreement launches interstate water quality pilot trades in the Ohio River Basin, a program aimed to reduce the release of excess nutrients running off of farm fields into the network of waterways leading into the Ohio River, the largest tributary of the Mississippi River. The project, led by Electric Power Research Institute with assistance from American Farmland Trust, the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, the Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission, Hunton & Williams LLP, Kieser & Associates, LLC, and the University of California at Santa Barbara, marks the first time three states have come together to develop or implement an interstate trading program where all states operate under the same rules and a water quality credit generated in one state can be applied in another.

What is Water Quality Trading?

The goal of water quality trading is to improve the health of water sources, in this case the Ohio River and its tributaries, by reducing the excess nutrients leaving cities, factories and farms. It is an innovative market-based approach to reduce the release of excess nutrients from non-point sources – such as farm fields – into waterways. Water quality trading is:

  • Completely voluntary;
  • A source of revenue for farmers who can make further reductions in nutrients through planned conservation practices; and
  • A cost-effective alternative for regulated utilities, wastewater treatment plants and industries to meet environmental regulations by buying nutrient reduction credits from farmers.
A field tour of conservation practices on Schroer Farm in Patriot, Ind., showed possible credit-generation practices in action.

A field tour of conservation practices on Schroer Farm in Patriot, Ind., showed possible credit-generation practices in action.

By offering a financial incentive for farmers in the Ohio River Basin to implement conservation practices while at the same time improving water quality and saving money, water quality trading is a win-win for all involved. (Though geared toward similar AFT work in the Chesapeake Bay, our video “Nutrient Trading in Maryland” helps to highlight the pilot program now being established in the Ohio River Basin.)

A Voice for Farmers. A Vision for the Future

American Farmland Trust’s role in the project is to ensure that the water quality trading program is developed in a way that allows for full participation of farmers. Not only will these practices improve the health of the entire river basin, but they will help keep farmers on the land and actively farming by adding a new source of income to their operations – the sale of nutrient reduction credit to utility companies, wastewater treatment plants and other regulated point sources.

The plan will serve as the basis for the three states to implement pilot trades beginning in 2012 through 2015. Although some states have adopted trading policies or rules to govern trading within their jurisdictions, this is the first time that several states have come together to develop or implement an interstate trading program where all states operate under the same rules and a water quality

Representatives from Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio sign the Ohio River Basin Water Quality Trading Plan

Representatives from Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio sign the Ohio River Basin Water Quality Trading Plan credit generated in one state can be applied in another.

After three years of hard work, we’re just getting started. We plan to have the first pilot trades in place before the end of 2012 with the remainder implemented in 2013-2014. The water quality pilot trades will take place in up to 16 counties in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, and are expected to engage at least three power plants and up to 30 farms implementing conservation practices on up to 20,000 acres. Reduction of nutrients running from farm fields into waterways is expected to total approximately 45,000 pounds of nitrogen and 15,000 pounds of phosphorus annually.

At full-scale, the project could include up to eight states in the Ohio River Basin and would potentially create credit markets for 46 power plants, thousands of wastewater facilities and other industries, and approximately 230,000 farmers. There is much work left ahead in order to get there, but with the signatures transcribed on a balmy August day in Cincinnati, we have taken a critical giant leap in the right direction.


About the Author: Ann Sorensen, Ph.D. is Director of Research at American Farmland Trust. She currently sits on the EPA’s Farm, Ranch and Rural Communities Federal Advisory Committee.

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What is the BMP Challenge?

The BMP Challenge™ is a program that American Farmland Trust is running in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, in other Mid-Atlantic states, in New York, California and across the Midwest as a tool to help farmers implement BMPs, or Best Management Practices to achieve conservation goals, on their farmland. For farmers with fields in corn, nitrogen is one of the primary nutrients to help it grow, and farmers apply commercial forms of nitrogen fertilizer to provide the crop with added nutrients. The amount of nitrogen applied to the field is based on the farmer’s yield goal, or how many bushels of corn the farmer expects to grow per acre—one pound of nitrogen for one bushel of corn on average. But nitrogen’s availability to the plant is tricky, affected by temperature and the moisture in the soil. To ensure that the corn gets enough a farmer may apply extra nitrogen as insurance for reaching their yield goals.

Barn and corn field in Virginia's Shenandoah ValleyWhen more nitrogen (or any other nutrient) is applied than what the plant can utilize for growth, the excess can leave the field as runoff and contaminate waterways. Farmers have no interest in wasting expensive fertilizer or sending nutrients into nearby waterways, but their harvest is their pay check for the whole year. The risk of being wrong is great. The role that the BMP Challenge plays is to allow the farmer to compare a new practice, designed to be more nitrogen efficient, to their standard practice with a guaranteed payment if they lose yield.

When a farmer agrees to participate in the BMP Challenge a crop advisor, like me, works with them to collect a detailed history on the enrolled field, outlining the history of corn grown  and how much and what types of fertilizers have been applied to the ground. This allows us to establish how much nitrogen is already present in the soil and available for use by the newly planted crop. The crop advisor then asks what the farmer’s current yield goal is, so we can determine how much total nitrogen the corn will need by the end of the growing season.

Typically, farmers in the Shenandoah Valley apply fertilizer to corn twice; once at planting and again when they “sidedress” the balance when the corn is about knee high. This way fertilizer is available to the plant at every stage during the growing season. My job as a crop advisor is to help the farmer pinpoint exactly how much sidedress nitrogen is needed by using a Pre-Sidedress Nitrate Test, or PSNT.

The farmer and crop advisor collect soil samples 12 inches deep to measure the amount of nitrogen available to the plant just prior to the time when the young plants need the most fertilizer. The extra depth allows a more complete and accurate picture of how much nitrogen is available and helps guard against over fertilization. (Check out this video from the University of Wisconsin Extension for a look at PSNT in action.)

For the BMP Challenge™, We take soil samples from two different parts of the field.  One is a strip through the middle of the field, or check strip, where the farmer was encouraged to sidedress the crop at whatever rate they would typically use based on their soil type and yield goal.  In the remainder of the field the farmer agreed to only apply the amount of nitrogen recommended from the PSNT result.  It is possible that the PSNT could be the same as what the farmer had already planned or it could even call for more nitrogen, but often, the PSNT indicates that the nitrogen sidedress can be reduced or even eliminated without causing a loss in yield.

At a time when commercial fertilizer can be a third of corn’s total cost of production, any savings a farmer can find will make a huge difference for their bottom line.  Using a soil test to adjust nitrogen rates to the actual need can save money and improve water quality.  But what if it’s wrong?

By using a side-by-side comparison within the same field it is possible for the farmer to prove to him or her self that the PSNT can be trusted. And by performing the test under the umbrella of the BMP Challenge™, the risk of trying this new practice is eliminated.

Next up… Half-way to Harvest – What’s the Score? -Ear Leaf Tissue Testing in the BMP fields



About the Author: Dana Gochenour is a farmer and freelance writer in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. She can be reached at dgochen@vt.edu.

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Farm and Food News 3/2/12

Conservation Practices Show Dual Benefit in Maryland

The Maryland Department of Agriculture recently reported their findings related to the benefits of farmers utilizing cover crops. This year, the practice was used on 429,818 acres of farmland, resulting in better soil quality and reduced agricultural runoff.

A County’s Oral History of Farmland Protection

In the early 1960s, predictions of explosive population growth in California’s Napa Valley led to the founding of the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve. A recent book, “Oral Histories of Napa County’s Agricultural Preserve,” captures some of the voices who first launched the farmland protection movement in the region.

Documenting Life on the Farm

Four farmers in western North Carolina have been documenting their daily lives since July 2011 through a series of online videos. Part of a longer film-in-progress, the project of Carolina Farm Credit, is offering the farmers’ stories to connect food and community.

New York State Funds Agricultural Development Projects

In an effort to boost economic development in New York, the Empire State Development agency challenged communities last year to compete for funding through its Open for Business Program. Of the $785 million in grants awarded in 2011, $4.3 million was split among 14 agriculture projects, including an Agricultural Enterprise Park on Long Island.

California Community Continues Farmland Protection Legacy

For the past three decades, the Brentwood Agricultural Land Trust has battled development pressure to help protect more than 750 acres of farmland surrounding the city of Brentwood in California. In praise of the organization’s work—accounting for the most easements from any community in the state—one farmer explained, “My father, Stanley, was a farmer. I’m a farmer and my family will continue to farm here.”

House Agriculture Committee Announces Hearings

This week, House Ag Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK) announced field hearings taking place across the nation in preparation for the next farm bill. The first hearing will take place on March 9 in Saranac Lake, New York, with the series closing April 20 in Dodge City, Kansas.

Calling All Food Warriors!

Real Time Farms just announced the summer 2012 application opening for the Food Warrior internship program. Running from May 1 to August 20, Real Time Farms is looking for help in Boston, Chicago, Denver, Providence and Washington, D.C.

Upcoming Food and Farming Conferences

As part of Chicago’s Good Food Conference, the Good Food Financing Fair on March 15 will provide an opportunity for farmers and foodies to meet one-on-one with investors, economic development specialists, and other strategic partners to develop relationships and potentially work together.

The first Appalachian Food & Agriculture Summit will take place March 23 to 25 in Blacksburg, Virginia. Farmers,  students  and interested community members are invited to register.

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What’s Risk Got to Do with It?: Encouraging On-Farm Conservation

Like any business owner or operator, farmers take careful consideration when making any changes to their operations. A change that may seem relatively simple to an outsider could require new equipment, more labor or a different response to heavy rain or drought. In the end the change may turn out to be a great success, but that is often difficult to be sure of at the outset.

Pennsylvania farm with pond.This balance of change, risk and opportunity cannot be overlooked when asking farmers to address environmental challenges in the Chesapeake Bay. Agriculture may be the leading source of nutrient run-off there, but it has also been the second largest contributor to the progress in cleaning up the bay. We have been working with farmers in the region to help advance this progress through our BMP Challenge, a risk management program that American Farmland Trust is implementing across the nation to encourage farmers to make conservation happen on-the-ground. (For more on the BMP Challenge, read my recent story about visiting a farm in Virginia.)

A recent study in Pennsylvania focused on how to address risk when the business of agriculture intersects with the need to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. . Here is what we found:

Risk Is Real

The National Academy of Sciences acknowledges the dilemma that farmers face in deciding how much fertilizer to use:

“Since (they) must make nitrogen applications without being able to predict weather and crop yields, the potential for being wrong is always present and will always occur in some years.”

Our data shows that reducing fertilizer on crops can result in decreased yields 40 percent of the time even with well-tested practices. Over time, these practices should pay off, but farmers cite fear of lost income as a major consideration when deciding whether or not to implement new conservation practices.

An Effective Way to Manage Risk

The BMP Challenge provides three helpful supports to farmers willing to take a chance:

1) Technical assistance from a certified agricultural consultant to help plan and implement the change

2) A comparison of the standard and the new practice on the farmer’s field so he or she can get experience using it and see the results

3) An income guarantee so that if a loss in profit is experienced, the farmer receives the difference

The Result: Widespread Adoption of New Practices

In Pennsylvania, we found that BMP Challenge participants report high satisfaction with the program, and 85 percent say that they have continued to use the practice or a modified form of it on their farm.

Looking Ahead

These results are an important step in addressing the risk that farmers face when adopting conservation practices. We believe that the BMP Challenge is an important new tool for farmers—helping them manage part of the risk they face in trying to be good stewards of the environment and successful small businesses at the same time.

Over the coming months, we will continue exploring how these results will impact the Chesapeake Bay and impaired water bodies across the country. Can we scale up our demonstrations to broader availability? Are there other ways to address “conservation risk,” such as emerging income opportunities like water quality trading that can help mitigate the financial risk of adopting water quality practices?


Jim Baird About the Author: Jim Baird is Mid-Atlantic Director for the American Farmland Trust where he works to help maintain viable farms and clean water through the adoption of nutrient-related conservation practices and en

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Pacific Northwest: A Year of Progress

This has been an exceptionally busy year for American Farmland Trust in the Pacific Northwest. It has been a year full of changes: our longtime regional director, Don Stuart, retired at the end of 2010 but has continued to work closely with our office. It has been a year full of building and strengthening relationships as our alliances with a wide-range of agricultural, local food and smart growth organizations have flourished through collaborative efforts surrounding our shared goals.

The Pacific Northwest is home to some of the America’s most fertile and productive farmland. Farms and ranches in Washington, Oregon and Idaho reach consumers in the Northwest and throughout the nation with their abundance of food and other agricultural products, even as they face pressures from sprawling development. Here are just a few ways we have been working to protect farmland, safeguard the environment and provide fresh, healthy food throughout the region.

Rows of crops in the Pacific NorthwestThe Pioneers in Conservation Program: Helping Farmers Safeguard Salmon Habitat

Thanks to a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, we revived the Pioneers in Conservation program and will offer small grants to farmers for salmon habitat restoration projects along rivers and wetlands. American Farmland Trust offered a similar program from 2007 to 2009, which was widely supported by the environmental and farm communities and protected salmon while supporting farm businesses. We expect to announce the first grants in early 2012.

Making Farmland Protection Programs More Effective

We finished a study of farmland protection programs in the 12 counties surrounding Puget Sound. The county-by-county assessment covered zoning, land use regulations, tax relief, land protection tools and economic development programs. Skagit, King and Whatcom counties were recognized as having the best programs for saving important farm and ranch land. We will follow up our county study with a program for counties wishing to improve their farmland protection programs.

Can the Puget Sound Feed Itself?

We also completed the first phase of a foodshed study of the Puget Sound region focusing on what foods are produced and consumed within a 100-mile radius of downtown Seattle. With help from graduate students at the University of Washington, our next step is to identify how food travels from farmers to consumers, how much farmland is needed to produce local food for the area and how we can better promote locally supplied food.

Identifying the Most Threatened Farm and Ranch Landscapes

Which working landscapes in the Pacific Northwest are most threatened by suburban sprawl, second-home development, rural estates, competition for water and other issues? We are laying the groundwork and creating partnerships in Oregon, Idaho and western Montana to roll out a program that helps identify and protect the most endangered farm landscapes in those states.

A Look Ahead

We are prepared for another strong year in 2012. Along with our partners, we will be following up with our work to address sprawling development in the region, provide healthy food locally, and safeguard environmental resources such as clean water.

Thank you for your help, support and encouragement. We could not do our work without you.


Dennis CantyAbout the author: Dennis Canty is the Pacific Northwest Director for American Farmland Trust. Before joining AFT, Canty founded Evergreen Funding Consultants in 2001, a Seattle firm that focuses on funding strategies for environmental projects.

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