Another year has passed, and with it a year of exciting new projects and partnerships to protect the priceless farmland resources of the Midwest. Farmers throughout the region are finding ways to be better stewards of the land, while farmers and citizens alike are fighting for policies and programs that keep farmland in farming even with state budget issues and shifting farm ownership demographics looming.
Just as farmers glance back at the rows they’ve just planted or harvested as they continue moving forward, I wanted to take this chance to share with you some of the successes we’ve had over the past year:
In the Upper Salt Fork watershed in central Illinois, our work with farmers to reduce fertilizer and soil runoff into the Mississippi River basin has so far resulted in new conservation practices on nearly 4,000 acres of the 27,000-acre watershed. In Lake Erie, where a record toxic algal bloom spread, adding to the “dead zone” threatening the area’s $10 billion annual tourism industry, we’re working with farmers to reduce phosphorus runoff, which contributes to the problem. And in the Ohio River Basin, we’re starting to recruit farmers to participate in pilot trades that could lead to the nation’s largest water quality trading program.
Keeping Farms in Farming While Safely Controlling Pests
Working with the Environmental Protection Agency, we have five projects underway to help fruit and vegetable farmers in the Midwest control insects, weeds, plant diseases and other pests while protecting the environment and remaining profitable. In Michigan, we’re helping cherry growers manage pesky flies, while in Minnesota we’ve helped strawberry, pumpkin and potato growers control weeds without chemicals.
Bringing Farm Owners and Operators Together
Currently, nearly 90 percent of farm owners are not farm operators, with absentee landlords owning 44 percent of the nation’s farmland. Along with key partners in Iowa, we launched a project to learn about the impacts of absentee landowners, the adoption of conservation practices on leased land and how to help owners and operators discuss conservation challenges.
Saving Farmland Protection in Wisconsin
Just two years ago, we led the drive to pass Wisconsin’s Working Lands Initiative and create a new Farmland Preservation Program, much needed in a pivotal farm state losing its fertile farmland to development. But when Governor Scott Walker put promised funds for the program on hold and called for eliminating it entirely, American Farmland Trust mobilized farmers, activists and citizens. The state legislature listened, keeping the program intact and restoring funds for already approved projects.
Women: America’s Emerging Agricultural Leaders
Due to the age of many farmers, within 20 years about 70 percent of farmland will change hands, and women may own up to 75 percent of it. While possessing a strong conservation ethic, many women are unsure of how to take action to protect and conserve their land. We’ve started the planning process to hold women-only meetings to educate women who own farmland in the Midwest, helping to address such barriers.
A Look Ahead
For more than 25 years, we have been working to protect farmland through preservation and conservation efforts throughout the Midwest. In the breadbasket of the nation, we know we can’t afford to take these priceless resources for granted. That’s why we will continue our work throughout the Midwest in the coming year and beyond.
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.