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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