Guest Contributor: Partnerships Power Conservation Efforts

When USDA launched the Regional Conservation Partnership Program several months ago, we talked about our hope that this new way of doing business would build coalitions of unlikely partners and bring new money and resources for conservation projects to the table.

The overwhelmingly positive response to this new approach has far exceeded our initial expectations. Over the past several months, nearly 5,000 partners have come together to submit nearly 600 pre-proposals to USDA. All told, these coalitions of partners requested more than six times the $394 million in funding available from USDA for the first round of conservation projects, in addition to bringing their own, matching resources to the table.
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Farm Policy Roundup—August 1, 2014

Congress Enters Recess without Finishing Appropriations, Tax Extenders

Cabbage fieldCongress begins a month-long recess today, leaving many issues to address when legislators return in September. Legislation left unfinished includes fiscal year 2015 agriculture appropriations and permanent extension of the enhanced conservation easement deduction which expired last year. American Farmland Trust worked with our allies to advance these priorities. Together, both pieces of legislation are essential for continued protection of our nation’s working farm and ranch land.
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Farm Policy Roundup—July 25, 2014

Appropriations, Tax Extenders Update

iStock_000000142578MediumCongress enters its final week of legislative session on July 28 before entering a month-long recess August 1. While key votes have been taken in recent weeks to approve multiple appropriations bills and to extend important tax provisions, it appears unlikely that further Congressional action will occur this summer.
This week, Congressional leaders announced intent to pass a short term funding bill, known as a continuing resolution (CR), through mid-November, to keep the federal government operational into fiscal year 2015 (FY15). The FY15 Agriculture Appropriations bill has not been considered on the floor of either chamber. The House voted last week to permanently extend important charitable and conservation tax incentives, including the Enhanced Conservation Easement Deduction, however it is unlikely the Senate will consider tax extenders until November.
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Farm Policy Roundup –July 18, 2014

House Passes Permanent Enhanced Conservation Deduction

iStock_000000142578MediumThe U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 4719, a tax package to encourage charitable giving. Included in the bill were provisions of H.R. 2807, the Conservation Easement Incentive Act. Originally sponsored by Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.) and Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), H.R. 2807 would make permanent an enhanced conservation easement deduction for landowners donating conservation easements. The Conservation Easement Incentive Act had broad bi-partisan support in the House with 222 co-sponsors and the larger charitable tax package passed in the House by a vote of 277 to 130. Companion legislation to H.R. 2807, S. 526, is currently pending in the U.S. Senate where the next vote will occur in order for the enhanced deduction to become permanent.

American Farmland Trust continues to support the enhanced deduction as Congress considers “tax extenders” legislation. AFT is also pursuing broader tax reform, specifically changes to the estate tax that would benefit farmland conservation.
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Farm Policy Roundup–July 11, 2014

rcppblogRegional Conservation Partnership Program Pre-Proposal Deadline July 14

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is accepting pre-proposals for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) through Monday, July 14.

NRCS is advises partners to submit pre-proposals via email or postal mail. The Grants.gov website will be down for maintenance the weekend of July 12- 14, 2014. This means that applicants will NOT be able to submit proposals via Grants.gov after today, July 11. For any applicants submitted between July 12 -14, please submit through email at RCPP@wdc.usda.gov or postal mail.

For complete details, visit the RCPP homepage.
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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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Cultivating the Next Generation: Beginning Farmers Success Stories

trapp23After working as a mechanical engineer, Mark Trapp decided to be a farmer. “I got into farming because of fear for the world I’d bring children into,” he said. “But now it’s a love of the land that keeps me here—and that’s a more positive motivation.”

Mark read books about modern agriculture and agricultural practices before becoming a part-time farmer on a two acre plot near Cleveland, Ohio. After three years, he dreamed of having his own farm.

Mark is not alone. New and beginning farmers struggle to not only find available farmland, but also the capital to get started. According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, the number of beginning farmers is at a 30-year low, down 20 percent since 2007. In an effort to help new and beginning farmers succeed in agriculture, American Farmland Trust investigated the challenges and opportunities beginners face and what resources are available to help them. Our report, Cultivating the Next Generation: Resources and Policies to Help Beginning Farmers Succeed in Agriculture, highlights 11 beginning farmers and ranchers from across the country, including Mark Trapp.

New and beginning farmers and ranchers’ most universal challenge is acquiring farmland to rent and buy. Mark took a creative approach; he worked with a local land conservancy working to restore the agricultural heritage of Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley, which was designated as a national park. The Conservancy works closely with the National Park Service to select qualified and committed new farmers to make the land productive. Within eight months, Mark had a 60-year lease on 28 fertile acres.

Farmer23Inspired by the local foods movement, freelance writer-turned-farmer Alison Parker apprenticed for a year on an urban farm. Hooked on farming, she interned on a CSA (community supported agriculture) farm before launching Radical Root Organic Farm in Libertyville, Illinois, with Alex Needham. A local nonprofit loaned them a one-acre plot to get started. Ready to expand after only their first season, they couldn’t find land they could afford.

So, they focused on incubator programs and landed on the Farm Business Development Center (FBDC) at Prairie Crossing Farm, “It was a great location,” says Alison, noting that the farm is less than an hour to downtown Chicago. The FBDC provided access to land, key infrastructure and equipment and mentors from Sandhill Organics, the keystone, permanent farm on the Prairie Crossing site. During their first year, Alison and Alex leased two acres, a tractor, and tools. By the end of their fifth season, the farm produced certified organic vegetables, eggs, and honey for 110 CSA members and two larger farmers markets.

Today, thanks to the support of the FBDC, Alison and Alex lease 12 tillable acres of conservation land in a unique land tenure arrangement with a local land trust. Liberty Prairie Foundation leases the land from Conserve Lake County and the forest district and then subleases it to Radical Root Farm. With their biggest hurdle behind them, Alison and Alex are getting equipment and infrastructure in place. They received a small grant, applied for a USDA microloan to purchase a wash-pack facility and cooler, and are using crowdfunding to help pay for a new greenhouse.

Mark, Alison and Alex are beating the odds — they were able to secure land and capital to get started and are succeeding in agriculture.

AFT found many private organizations and public programs to support beginning farmers and ranchers. But, they are widely dispersed and disconnected, making it hard for beginners to find, compare and access those resources, especially state policies. In response, we created a special collection on our Farmland Information Center: http://www.farmlandinfo.org/beginningfarmers. In addition, USDA just unveiled a new website to provide a centralized, one-stop resource where beginners can find the variety of USDA initiatives designed to help them succeed: http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/newfarmers?navid=newfarmers.

Read more success stories and find out more about state policies and resources to support beginning farmers and ranchers in American Farmland Trust’s report Cultivating the Next Generation: Resources and Policies to Help Beginning Farmers Succeed in Agriculture

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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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A Vision for California Agriculture: An Interview with Edward Thompson, Jr., California Director, American Farmland Trust

What brought you to this kind of work and has kept you engaged for your 32 years with American Farmland Trust (AFT)?

I started out as an environmental lawyer at the Environmental Defense Fund back in the early 1970’s. We were working on pesticides, water quality and quantity and wetlands, and the common thread that runs through all these issues is agriculture. So that was how I got interested in farming. Then I had a chance to go work on what may have been the first farmland preservation project in the country with The National Association of Counties. They had just gotten a Rockefeller grant to design and advance a national farmland protection policy that eventually became the Farmland Protection Policy Act of 1981.

I was doing that and pulling together information about what was going on with farmland protection in various places around the country, when I was approached by Doug Wheeler and Pat Noonan who had been asked by Peggy Rockefeller, AFT’s founder, to put together what was supposed to be a “Nature Conservancy for agriculture.” They asked me to serve as AFT’s first legal counsel as well as publications editor. I thought it was a great opportunity. Doug became AFT’s first president and Pat its eventual chairman. The rest is history.

How did you come to be AFT’s California director?

I have held a number of positions since joining AFT, including general counsel, national policy director and senior vice president. In each of these capacities I have been involved in California, the nation’s leading farm state. So, when I was asked in 2003 to take over our operation out here, I jumped at the chance. In my view, this is one place where AFT simply cannot afford to fail. One-eighth of U.S. agriculture is at stake, including more than half of our healthy fruits and vegetables. Urban sprawl was invented here and remains endemic, consuming 50,000 acres of farmland a year.

What accomplishment in the past year are you most proud of?

AFT helped launch a “greenprint,” which is intended to be a set of strategies for the conservation and sustainable management of land and water resources, in the San Joaquin Valley. This is California’s most important agricultural region, the southern half of the Central Valley. It’s like a fruit forest 250 miles long by 50 miles wide. In the spring when all the fruit, the almonds and the peaches and the plums everything are in bloom, it’s just astonishing. But it’s under siege from urban growth with a population of four million expected to reach nine million by mid-century.

We hope the “greenprint” will address the environmental challenges facing agriculture like maintaining an adequate irrigation water supply and help reinforce the idea that the farmland surrounding the Valley’s cities is not just white space on the map awaiting its “highest and best use.” In most cases, agriculture is the highest and best use. The “greenprint” will, thus, supplement something called the San Joaquin “Blueprint,” which is a plan for more compact, efficient urban development in which AFT also played a key role. It will save something like 150,000 acres of farmland that would otherwise have succumbed to urban sprawl in this region. That is, if local governments actually implement the plan. AFT has been digging in at the local level in an effort to get cities and counties to amend their land use plans to conform to the Blueprint. The City of Fresno, the biggest city in the Valley, is leading the way on this. It recently adopted a new plan that is a model for “smart growth” that will save farmland and reduce the greenhouse gases contributing to climate change. Through its Groundswell network, AFT helped rally a diverse group of hundreds of people who turned out at the hearing to encourage the city council to vote for the plan.

What’s the most important thing that can be done to save farmland in California?

In California, almost all the cities are surrounded by very productive, irreplaceable farmland. As they grow, we’re going to have to sacrifice some of that land so people can have places to live and work. But to keep the loss to a minimum, we need to use the land more efficiently. Cities ought to be thinking more like farmers, in terms of yield per acre. Farmers want to get the most crop they can on each acre they farm, that’s how they make money. Cities should be thinking in a similar way in terms of how many people, how many jobs, how many dollars of economic activity they can get out of each acre of farmland that is paved over. That will pay dividends for them, too, not only by saving farmland, but also by conserving water and energy and, perhaps most importantly, reducing the cost to taxpayers of providing public services to new development.


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

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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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