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.