Category Archives: In the News

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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Stories of Farmland Protection Help Steer Future of Wisconsin’s Farmland

From tales of struggle and triumph passed down through generations of a farm family to accounts of new beginnings for those venturing into agriculture for the first time, the stories shared by farmers are as rich and diverse as the fields they sow. These stories mark the history of a farm family and, as was recently witnessed in Green Bay, Wisconsin, can also help chart the path for their future.

In early June, members of Wisconsin’s agricultural and conservation communities lent their stories to the Board of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, a policy-making body within the state’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. The department was tasked in 2011 through the state budget appropriations process to review and evaluate its investment in the fledgling Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement (PACE) program. Through the PACE program, landowners can apply for state funding to help purchase the development rights of their working lands and help protect it from non-agricultural development. The board meeting in Green Bay was the latest in the fight for continued PACE support.

There is no off-season in agriculture and the spring and summer months can be particularly demanding. Nevertheless, speakers came from farms across the state, each leaving much work waiting for them back home, to share their stories and to make the case for PACE. Several farmers detailed the economic development benefits tied to PACE funding. They identified incentives to buy more land, expand operations and provide opportunities for young family members: When they reinvested in agriculture, their employees and local communities also benefited.

As young farmers Christa Behnke, Zoey Brooks and Kyle Zwieg explained, the PACE easements on their families’ properties have provided them certainty for the future and the opportunity to carry on the family business. Zwieg added that he and a brother would probably be working off the farm had it not been for their farm’s PACE easement.

The power of these farmers’ voices—just a sliver of the approximately 37,000 farm operators across the state—illuminated the numerous benefits of PACE. As a result of their efforts, the board took decisive action. After reviewing the recently released PACE report in the afternoon, the board recommended to the Wisconsin Legislature that the PACE program be continued and a source of funding be identified. The motion passed unanimously.

This good news is the latest in American Farmland Trust’s ongoing work to help protect Wisconsin’s critical farmland. Along with our partner, Gathering Waters Conservancy, we have been on the ground in Wisconsin since 2008, working to secure essential policies and programs through the Campaign for Wisconsin’s Farm and Forest Lands. Together, we organized and coordinated a sizeable and influential coalition in support of creating two new farmland protection and farm viability programs — PACE and the Agricultural Enterprise Area Program — that were adopted and funded by the state Legislature in 2009.

However, then newly anointed Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker targeted the PACE program for elimination in his inaugural budget package in early 2011. Through the “Friends of Farmland Protection” campaign, American Farmland Trust and Gathering Waters Conservancy coordinated key supporters from the farm, local government, land trust and planning communities to reach out to lawmakers, the governor and other key leaders to voice strong grassroots support for farmland protection in Wisconsin. In the end, the Legislature listened to the stories shared about the importance of PACE, removing the proposal that would have eliminated the PACE program and restoring funds for the first round of approved applications.

Altogether, the land protection and conservation involvement of American Farmland Trust and our partners in Wisconsin have made progress while overcoming significant hurdles since 2008. The impact has been the designation of 340,000 acres in 17 Agricultural Enterprise Areas and 75 applications covering more than 20,000 acres to the PACE program. But our work is far from complete. Through collective action and shared stories, we continue to help steer efforts to protect Wisconsin’s farmland for generations to come.


About the author: One of the nation’s leading experts in Farmland Protection, Bob Wagner celebrated his 25th year at American Farmland Trust in 2010 and has worked in the field of farmland protection since 1981. In his current position, Wagner helps states and local communities nationwide build support for and create policies to protect agricultural land.

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Report Charts Progress Toward Achieving California’s Agricultural Vision

California agricultural leaders are making progress on a broad front to address major challenges to the industry’s sustainability, guided by goals established by the State Board of Food and Agriculture. And they are doing so by collaborating with environmentalists and representatives of other groups with an interest in the food system. These are the conclusions of a new report by American Farmland Trust (AFT) on the progress of California Agricultural Vision.

California Farm Fields on cover of From Strategies to Results report

The report, From Strategies to Results, stems from a process that was started in 2008 by the State Board and the California Department of Food & Agriculture. California Agricultural Vision (Ag Vision) was designed to identify and promote actions that farmers, ranchers and others in the food system should take to assure a healthy population, a clean environment and a profitable industry.

From Strategies to Results documents more than 40 initiatives being taken to implement the recommendations of an earlier AFT report, Strategies for Sustainability, published in late 2010. Those recommendations emerged from a two-year process of engaging more than a hundred stakeholders, which was facilitated by AFT at the request of the State Board. A blue ribbon Ag Vision advisory committee of twenty leaders representing agriculture, the environment, hunger and nutrition, farm labor and other interests, formulated the final recommendations. Co-chaired by former AFT president Ralph Grossi and Luawanna Hallstrom, a member of the State Board, it continues to meet periodically to track progress and encourage broader participation.

We would like to hear from you!

Read California Agricultural Vision: Strategies for Sustainability (2010)

Read the new From Strategies to Results and share in the comment space below what you believe are the most important and promising of the more than 40 initiatives described in the report.

Vote for your top priority Strategy for Sustainability

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Ed ThompsonAbout the Author: Edward Thompson, Jr., California Director at American Farmland Trust has been with the organization since it was founded 30 years ago, serving in multiple positions and helping initiate a wide variety of projects.

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The Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program: A Partnership for Saving the Land

Since 1996, the backbone of federal support for farmland protection has rested in the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, or FRPP. By bridging federal funds with state, local and private dollars to help these government and private partners protect more than 810,000 acres of rich, agricultural lands.

Development encroaching on farmlandEfforts around the country to protect farmland reflect a deep public commitment to agriculture, to today’s farmers, and to sustaining the land base for future generations of farmers. Supporting these efforts is critical. The USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service reports that, from 1982 to 2007, more than 23 million acres of agricultural land—an area the size of the state of Indiana—was permanently converted to non-agricultural development. The continued loss of productive farmland to development threatens the viability and future of local agricultural industries, communities and economies across the nation. It is critical that the federal government continue to be an important ally and partner in efforts to reverse these trends.

As Congress debates the next farm bill, the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, along with many important conservation programs, will be reviewed and re-assessed. Congress should note that the program has proven to be a cost-effective contributor to locally-driven strategies to protect farmland and support farmers and their communities. Thanks to the local partnership structure, 66 percent of the funding for the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program projects has come from non-federal sources, while administrative costs have also not fallen on federal funding sources.

In order for the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program to continue to be an effective partner in such local efforts, it is essential that it retains key core components. The Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program should:

  • Use program funds only for permanent agricultural conservation easements;
  • Continue to be aimed at protecting working farmland for active agricultural production; and
  • Be based on recognizing state and local governments and private land trusts as vital partners and providing matching funds to these partners to purchase agricultural conservation easements.

In addition to these key program elements, an effective Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program—one that will ensure a productive and healthy future for American agriculture—will require adequate funding. The 2012 Farm Bill comes at a time of high-profile congressional battles over the federal budget. In fact, last fall’s attempt to address the deficit through the Joint Select Committee forced approximately $23 billion in farm program cuts over 10 years, with more than $6 billion coming from conservation programs. The Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program received disproportionate cuts—nearly 30 percent—when other conservation programs saw 10 to 20 percent reductions. All of this, at a time when demand for farmland protection is on the rise, including a steady backlog of existing funding requests and growing interest from the western ranching community.

As the 2012 Farm Bill negotiations move forward, Congress needs to have a clear picture of the critical need to protect the nation’s farmland. You can help American Farmland Trust share this message by contacting your member of Congress.  Let them know that the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program must not see unfair cuts in the farm bill.


About the author: One of the nation’s leading experts in Farmland Protection, Bob Wagner celebrated his 25th year at American Farmland Trust in 2010 and has worked in the field of farmland protection since 1981. In his current position, Wagner helps states and local communities nationwide build support for and create policies to protect agricultural land.

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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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Farm and Food News 2/24/12

Secretary Vilsack Calls for New Farmer Support

The 150th Agricultural Outlook forum took place in Virginia this week. In his remarks, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack appealed to the need to support the next generation of farmers: “America will need more farmers, ranchers and growers,” he said. “This farm bill is probably more significant to young people in America considering agriculture for their future.”

Living the Four Seasons Harvest

For decades, Eliot Coleman has defied the elements of winters in Maine to run his profitable and sustainable Four Season Farm. Last year, the farm grossed $120,000 from crops grown on 1.5 acres of land.

Massachusetts Conferences Targets Beginning Female Farmers

From March 22 to 23, a conference for women who want to learn more about whole farm planning will take place at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Breakout session topics include animal health, marketing and making the farm-to-table connection.

Deadline Approaching for Conservation Grant Application

As part of its Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) program, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service is accepting proposals through March 2 for water quality credit trading projects. Our video on water quality credit trading, developed along with the Maryland Department of Agriculture, helps demonstrate the economic benefits to farmers with this approach.

Sharing Fresh Produce with Food Pantries

In its third year of operation, the Culpeper Volunteer Farm in Virginia is aiming to produce 60,000 pounds of fresh vegetables to be donated to area food pantries. The 97-acre farm is run by approximately 1,000 people. In similar news, farmers of any size operation can match with food pantries throughout the nation through AmpleHarvest.org.

Match.com for Farmland?

Like many farmland linking programs around the country, California FarmLink is a busy matchmaker between aging farmers looking to sell or lease their land and beginning farmers looking to start new farm enterprises. Last fall, we published our own guide to assist with land transitions in Connection: Farmland ConneCTions.

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Farm and Food News 2/17/12

More Than a Dozen New Farms Protected in Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania Agricultural Land Preservation Board announced an additional 1,470 acres of farmland protected across 14 farms. Since the program started in 1988, state, county and local governments have invested more than $1.1 billion to safeguard 459,007 acres on 4,243 farms.

Conference to Address Community Farms and Food in Hudson Valley

On February 25, farm and food partners in Columbia County, New York, will host the first Farming Our Future conference. The meeting will engage farmers, institutions and consumers in discussion about how to boost local food, farms and communities.

Sharing Stories of Michigan Farmers

Taste the Local Difference of Northwest Michigan has recently launched a new series of photos and stories about local farmers. New stories are added each week.

Small Farm Summit Coming to New York

The New York Small Farm Summit is fast approaching on February 29. The summit seeks to increase the visibility of small farmers, encourage local collaboration among regions and prioritize emerging opportunities to enhance small farms in New York and the Northeast.

Wisconsin Job Seekers Ask “Why Ag?”

A new online service is helping to match Wisconsin residents with appropriate jobs in agriculture. WhyAg.com features a skills-to-job match, as well as links to educational and training opportunities.

Farm-to-Institution Workshops in Virginia

Two workshops—February 28 and March 27—will address the challenges and opportunities involved in offering local, healthy food at Virginia hospitals, schools, nursing homes and corporate cafeterias.

USDA Launches New Beginning Farmer Website

USDA’s National Agricultural Library, in partnership with the American Farm Bureau Federation, recently launched Start2farm.gov, an online portal that provides assistance for beginning farmers and ranchers. The website includes links to training, financing, technical assistance and other support services, as well as successful case studies about new and beginning farmers and ranchers.

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Farm and Food News 2/10/12

A Farm and Food Education

At Pine Tree Elementary in Avon, Indiana, students are learning more than reading, writing and arithmetic. The school’s Agri-Lesson Director, Angie Williams, is helping to connect students more directly with farms and food through a monthly “Ag Day” and accompanying lessons on the important role that agriculture plays in the state.

Value-Added Grant Awardees Announced

On February 3, USDA announced the most recent recipients of its Value-Added Producer Grants. The total award amount of $40.2 million is the largest allotment for value-added producers in recent history.

Senate Agriculture Committee Announces Farm Bill Hearings

Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, has announced the committee’s farm bill hearing schedule for February and March.

CSA Brings Farm-To-College Connection

Tufts University has partnered with Enterprise Farms of South Deerfield, Massachusetts, to pilot an on-campus Community Supported Agriculture program. Though students have joined local CSAs in the past, this is the first time the university has had a program specifically designed to reach students, faculty and staff.

Rally Around Farms and Food in New York

There is still time to register for New York’s No Farms No Food® Rally on February 15 at the State Capitol in Albany. Help us urge state leaders to strengthen the farm and food economy, protect farmland and the environment and increase access to nutritious food grown in New York.

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A 2012 Farm Bill Almanac

Predictions for upcoming seasons are laid out each year in the pages of The Old Farmer’s Almanac — charting the sun, moon, tides and past weather records to forecast the year ahead. With that in mind, we’ve done some calculations of our own and gauged the temperature of discussions surrounding farm and food policy for the 2012 Farm Bill.

Should the stars align, here are our predictions for topics to anticipate during the farm bill reauthorization process this spring.

Deficits and Cuts

The national deficit continues to loom overhead and the debate over the 2012 Farm Bill will be dominated like few others this century by deficit pressure. Every section of the legislation will be affected, but by how much we do not know. However, we do know that the deal to increase the debt ceiling means the farm bill will be cut by about $15 to $16 billion as a result of automatic sequestration. These cuts will most likely be the starting point—and not the end point—for final numbers.

Safeguarding the Environment

For conservation, 2012 will be a year when climate and environmental issues establish new trends and challenges. Dramatic weather events in 2011 created highs and lows in American agriculture, and coming years will be no exception. The discussion will focus on how to make conservation programs more efficient while equipping farmers with conservation tools and programs to meet environmental challenges and regulatory burdens.

With conservation programs having already contributed more than $2 billion to the nation’s deficit reduction through appropriations cuts, we think the farm bill debate this spring should center on promoting conservation funding without the threat of additional cuts. Conservation programs are too valuable to lose now—and for our future.

The Future of Farm Support Programs

Caught up in the budget belt-tightening are proposals to alter farm support, or subsidy, programs. For the first time in two decades, it is likely that direct payments will be eliminated. What will replace them is unclear, but the debate is currently focused on the appropriate role of government in helping farmers address risk.

We believe that  new safety net programs must protect farms from risks they can’t control, while also minimizing the programs’ influence on the economic and environmental behavior of farmers. The debate will be vigorous but we believe it will be critical to creating a farm support system that works effectively for both farmers and consumers.

Who Will be Farming and Stewarding the Land?Woman farmer and child looking out of a barn

Now more than any time since the end of World War II, it’s important for the nation to have a serious discussion about the generational and gender shifts happening in American agriculture.

According to the 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture, there are more than five times as many farmers at age 65 and older as there are 35 and younger. As the overall farm population ages, the influence of female landowners is predicted to rise.— 70 percent of farmland is expected to change hands in the next 20 years, with women potentially ending up  owning most of it. While we face the critical question of how land will be transitioned, at the same time we see the rise of young adults looking to start careers in agriculture but facing challenges securing land and succeeding in farming.

It will be difficult for farm policy leaders to ignore the changing demographics in agriculture. We think changes in land ownership, land stewardship and the engagement of young and beginning farmers in agriculture should be part of the discussion as Congress addresses programs for farmland protection, farm viability, and conservation.

Strengthening America’s Farm and Food System

Lawmakers will need to look systematically at what rural development policy is supposed to do to help today’s rural America.

The 2012 Farm Bill can be a catalyst to help rural America by finding ways to stimulate new market opportunities for agriculture and further support for local and regional food systems. Consumer demand for local food continues to rise, and farm policy can play a critical role in helping farmers provide it.

A Healthier Nation

Public health and nutrition, and the intersection with agriculture, is currently at the forefront of national interest. Amid on-going conversations about public health and chronic diseases is a focus on the availability of fresh, healthy food.

The connection between healthier diets and agricultural production is very real and easy to see. The demand for healthy food opens markets for agricultural products and potentially  helps keep farmers farming. Less clear, but no less important, is the role that public health demands may play in   local and regional food systems. The next farm bill presents the opportunity to explore public health while also creating market opportunities for farmers. We think 2012 will be the beginning of a long term trend of a new public health constituent group in the farm bill.

The forecast for the 2012 Farm Bill will take the direction of real forces shaping farm and food policy. As discussions around the 2012 Farm Bill get underway in Washington, we’ll be asking supporters of America’s farms and food to learn more, speak up and be heard.

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Farm and Food News 2/3/12

From the Battlefield to the Farm Field

Around the country, an increasing number of opportunities are helping military veterans transition to civilian life through farm programs and apprenticeships. In San Diego, a retired Marine has trained about 60 people returning from Iraq and Afghanistan through the Veteran Sustainable Agriculture Training program. And 2012 TEDx Manhattan Challenge winner Howard Hinterthuer is running a similar initiative in Milwaukee to help veterans transition into food production.

Take Action to Protect North Carolina Conservation Funding

Due to an accelerated legislative timetable, Land for Tomorrow is urging North Carolina residents to contact members of the state’s General Assembly now to ask them to protect conservation funding.

Young Farmers to Gather in Michigan

From March 9 to 11, the Michigan Young Farmer Coalition is hosting a retreat for young farmers from across the state to gather and help strengthen the future of Michigan agriculture.

A Super Bowl at the Super Bowl

Centerplate, the NFL’s largest food and beverage vendor, has partnered with Farm Aid co-founder John Mellencamp to promote its new line of “Homegrown”-branded locally sourced concessions. The partnership will kick off this weekend with bowls of beef and pork chili at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Eight Former Secretaries of Agriculture to Convene

This week, USDA announced the commemoration of its 150th year by bringing together eight former secretaries of agriculture at the 2012 Agricultural Outlook Forum, February 23 to 24.

Addressing Unemployment through Agriculture

The Michigan Land Institute is seeking to lower the unemployment rate through farming. The organization recently kicked off a program that would help low-income families gain the tools and resources needed to start farming.

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