Advocating for Farmland Forever in the Pacific Northwest: An Interview with Dennis Canty, Pacific Northwest Director, American Farmland Trust

What brought you to at American Farmland Trust and has kept you engaged during your two years here?

I’ve actually known about the organization since the early 1980’s and I’ve had a pretty strong interest in farmland preservation and rural conservation issues since then. I first got to know AFT when I was in graduate school and since 2003 had a really good opportunity to work with my predecessor, Don Stuart, who is just a great guy. He knows everybody and pretty much everything about farmland preservation out here. And so I was really inspired by Don’s leadership and interested in trying to continue his work out here.

Over the past year, what were some of the greatest accomplishments for AFT work in the Pacific Northwest?

Back in February, we released a report on farmland preservation programs around Puget Sound that is a comparative scorecard of how county governments are doing on farmland preservation. As part of that, it identified a few of the counties (three of the 12) that are really doing excellent work in terms of land use planning and purchase and transfer of development rights. We recognized those three with awards this spring and that was very well-received by the counties. One of the best things about the project is that, right after we released the report on the results, we had a couple of counties call up and say, “hey, how do we improve our score?” which is just the kind of thing that we like to hear. Right now we are working actively with a couple of counties to improve their land use planning related to agriculture. It’s exactly the kind of impact that we were hoping to have.

Mid-summer we revived Pioneers in Conservation, which offers small grants to farmers to do conservation work on their farms. Out here the focus is mostly on salmon recovery. People are doing is riparian restoration, but it also has tremendous water quality benefits. AFT had a breakthrough moment in the Snoqualmie Valley, just east of Seattle, where we came in with a very, very small pot of money, $35,000, but had the flexibility to allocate it to conservation projects that wouldn’t have been funded through other sources. As a consequence we were able to leverage a lot of funding both from nonprofit organizations and from NRCS. In the process we went from a $35,000 program to a program that’s now funded at about $400,000. And we’ll be doing riparian restoration on more than three miles of critical salmon reaches and farm communities out there. So that’s a pretty big deal. It’s also been called out by USDA out here as a great example of the kind of work that they want to see done around Washington State, particularly in the Puget Sound basin. So it has been a real hit.

Then I guess the last thing that I want to discuss is the Farmland Forever campaign. We have a really significant problem with farmland loss here in the Puget Sound region. We’ve lost about 60 percent of our farmland here since 1950, and of course this is near and dear to our mission as an organization. One of the things I’ve been interested in doing since I got here is to try to develop a strong campaign for farmland preservation in the Puget Sound region, particularly where the rates of loss have been high. We actually have a pretty significant grant from an organization called the Washington Women’s Foundation and we were the only grantee in their environmental category this year. We hope that this campaign is going to result in the protection of more than 100,000 acres of additional farmland here in the region.

What will be an important step in 2013 for the Farmland Forever campaign?

What I think that we’re finding in ramping up the Farmland Forever campaign is that there are a tremendous number of organizations that have an interest in farmland preservation but for whom this is not their primary focus. We need to develop a workable coalition among all those organizations. It’s quite an interesting mix of both agricultural and environmental organizations. Out here people do appreciate the role of farmers in preserving water quality and restoring habitat so there is a pretty strong appreciation for farmland preservation among the environmental community.

Can you think of a champion of farmland that has either inspired some of your work or changed the way you thought about approaching the challenges that you’ve faced?

Don Stuart. He’s a very self-effacing guy; he can be quiet and deferential. It’s amazing as I’ve gotten into this job to know just how far into this field he was active and what a huge difference he had made in farmland protection throughout the region.  I’ve just been humbled by it, to think he was really effective on so many different levels. So he really is one of my heroes in this regard.

Any last thoughts about AFT’s work in the Pacific Northwest?

We recognize that we are a very, very small organization with a very, very big mission and that we couldn’t get our work done without partnerships all over the place. It’s been wonderful as I get into this job, knowing how willing people are to partner with AFT based largely on a 30 year history of success in this area. And people lean into these activities. So I feel like we’re standing on other people’s shoulders doing this work, people that have gone before and done excellent work for AFT over the years.


Dennis CantyAbout the author: Dennis Canty is the Pacific Northwest Director for American Farmland Trust. Before joining AFT, Canty founded Evergreen Funding Consultants in 2001, a Seattle firm that focuses on funding strategies for environmental projects.

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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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Cultivating Community at Arlington Farmers Market

The Arlington Farmers’ Market is led by a grassroots, volunteer-run organization in the small town in northwestern Washington state. They hand-paint sandwich boards with directions to the market, attend city meetings to cultivate a presence in the community, and they look everywhere–even their own kids’ rooms–for books to read at a story time in the park. It’s fitting, then, that the market was started by farmers looking to expand upon their CSA. Mark and Patricia Lovejoy wanted to bring their fresh, local food to the residents of Arlington, so they simply showcased their produce downtown on Saturdays. Other farmers and crafters joined them. Two years ago the market was turned over to sisters Audrey Houston and Samantha Schuller. The Lovejoy organic produce tent still anchors the market, which has since doubled in size and sales and is recognized as a 2012 winner of the America’s Favorite Farmers Markets™ competition.

Vegetables at Arlington Farmers Market in Washintgon

Vegetables from farmers Mark and Patricia Lovejoy, owners of Garden Treasures. (Photo: Audrey Houston)

The market is focused on locally grown produce. In fact, most produce is grown within about 25 miles of the market, expect for the stone fruits grown on the other side of the mountains in Eastern Washington. Houston, who serves as the market director, said “the most popular items at the market are the tiny ones–berries.” During peak season, shoppers buy flats full of berries for jams, pies, or to eat by the handful.

On any given Saturday during the market, some 800 people will shop at the 13 or so vendors. More vendors join during berry season, but there’s always a variety of goods for the happy shoppers. Residents build relationships with the growers and many parents say they are glad they have the chance to model a healthy lifestyle to their kids by shopping for vegetables, spending time outside, and getting their kids engaged in story time and the free activities, Houston said.

“And maybe most importantly, it’s a community gathering space,” Houston explained. “There aren’t too many places in our culture these days where you can bump into your fellow residents without paying an entrance fee. If you stand in the middle of the market, you’ll hear neighbors greeting each other, friends grabbing some fruit for a picnic at the park, and a lot of laughter.”

The farmers at the market build the same relationships. These personal relationships drive their businesses and customers love the experience of not just knowing, but liking their farmers, Houston said. “Our farmers are people who’ve chosen lives of honest, hard work, who love experiences more than material goods, and who are willing to give up their summer Saturdays to get downtown and make connections within their community,” she added. The market offers growers a unique opportunity to sell to residents. As most grocery stores in the area only purchase food from large growers, the smaller, local farms can use the market downtown as a chance to expand their customer base and it provides an outlet for sales.

The Arlington Farmers’ Market also shares a healthy relationship with other local markets in the area. None of them are in direction competition. Instead, Houston said they build one another up, “the same way that the farmers at Arlington’s market don’t actually compete.” The markets spread the word to people of the importance of eating real food and they stress the need of growing our own food, Houston said. “The more farmers’ markets there are, the faster that change in public perception can happen.”

That grassroots efforts of organizing the market has paid off with the award of best small farmers market. Houston said it’s helped create a buzz in Arlington and the surrounding communities. Organizers plan to build on this success and add new vendors next year, including meat, dairy, prepared foods, and even more farmers.

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Fayetteville Farmers Market, Crown Jewel of the Community

The Fayetteville Farmers Market was founded nearly 40 years ago by a group of active farmers and gardeners looking for an opportunity to sell their goods to the community in the third largest city in Arkansas. The group worked with the community and formed a partnership with the city to host a farmers market on the downtown city square. Now with four markets a week and more than 100 vendors, the Fayetteville market draws over 250,000 visitors eager to purchase local food. The market serves as a regular community event and a gathering location for residents. It’s the place to be on a Saturday morning and the vendors make regular donations back into the community. For these reasons and more, the Fayetteville Farmers Market is one of the winners of this year’s America’s Favorite Farmers Market competition in the large category.

The market started in 1974 and is now open Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturday mornings around the historic Downtown Square. There is also a smaller Sunday market held at the Botanical Garden right along the Lake Fayetteville pedestrian trail. The Saturday market is known as the “Crown Jewel of Fayetteville,” and comes to life with street performers on every corner, local musicians, and community organizations and politicians promoting their projects and positions.

“It’s a family outing as well as a place to meet up with friends,” said Lori Boatright, the market’s Public & Media Coordinator. “It’s not just a place to buy the freshest food available, it’s a party every weekend.”

The entertainment and community vibe is not the only thing that draws people to the market, it’s also the locally grown and produced food. There are several produce vendors, while meat vendors sell beef, chicken, lamb, pork, and eggs. You’ll also find a variety of trees, plants, and shrubs, including some native species. The northwest of Arkansas offer a long and diverse growing seasons; farmers grow a variety of berries, apples, pears, and peaches, and more than 20 varieties of tomatoes. Eggplant and bok choy are regularly available and the market is proud to offer one of the only Animal Welfare Approved farms in the state.

“What began as a place for people to access local food has become the place to be on Saturday morning,” Boatright said. “The community has a very special place in their heart for the market. The market is also proud of our community partnerships with the city and with other area businesses and non-profits.”

Market organizers work hard to raise awareness of food insecurity in the community while vendors have donated more than 20,000 pounds of produce this season to local food pantries and kitchens. The market also plays an important role in the economic development of the community with monies spent in the community staying in the community. For the vendors, the market offers a place to sell their goods, but it’s also a place for educational opportunities and food safety information.

“We are so proud to be America’s Favorite Farmers’ Market,” Boatright said. “We hope that this title assists us in bringing even more awareness to small scale agriculture and its place in our communities.” Market organizers are also looking to expand opportunities to offer customers in other parts of town access to locally grown food.

Also, be sure to check out The Food Network show, The Great Food Truck Race, and their visit to the Fayetteville Farmers’ Market.

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Sulphur Spring Farmers Market Pairs Live Music with Local Food from Local Farms

The Sulphur Springs Farmers Market offers a unique shopping experience in the revitalized downtown area in eastern Texas. Not only can you purchase local produce straight from growers, but you can also do so while listening to live music on a Saturday night. Fresh strawberries, watermelons, pumpkins, tomatoes, cucumbers, and peaches are ripe in season and area farmers are quick to show off their favorite picks of the week. The market, as it’s known to locals, serves as a gathering point for the community. With strong support from their regular customers, the Sulphur Springs Farmers Market won the American Farmland Trust’s 2012 America’s Favorite Farmers Market contest in the midsize category.

“We are all very excited about the award,” said Shane Shepard, Community Development Director, City of Sulphur Springs. “We felt we would be a winning contender.” But the award verified their hard work and dedication.

Sulphur Springs, Texas Farmers Market video

Watch a video about the Sulphur Springs Farmers Market

Located about an hour east of Dallas, the rural area is peppered with markets. Local farmers often have to pick where to sell their fruits, vegetables, and meats. Organizers at Sulphur Springs saw the opportunity of hosting a market Saturdays from 6 to 10 p.m. as a way to allow vendors to sell at two markets in one day. With live music playing during the warm Texas evenings, it’s not uncommon for the hours to extend into midnight.

“We have communities within 20 to 30 miles–who were also in the competition–but everyone was doing their markets on Saturday morning,” Shephard said. “So we decided to do an evening market instead. Then we encouraged vendors to go ahead and do the other markets. Hopefully it helps the citizens of other towns and also the vendors because they have two chances to sell.”

About four years ago the city started a revitalization project in the downtown district. It was modeled on new urbanism, with narrower streets, and more walking areas. Part of the project was to create shopping neighborhoods full of foot traffic. A downtown farmers market fit perfectly into the new design.

In the first three years, the market was growers only and served as a way to bring fresh food to community members. There are several big agriculture producers in the area, but not as many small farmers. This led the market to shift away from a strict growers-only focus, though this move has indirectly helped the farmers who sell their produce because customers that came for prepared food or artwork also purchase fruits and vegetables.

The market offers one of the only venues in the area that allows residents to buy food straight from growers, so they know what’s in season and what to expect in the coming weeks. Given the rural proximity, residents have to travel quite a distance for healthy food. “This is our way of getting healthy food to consumers,” Shepard said. The Saturday evening market is more than just an opportunity for farmers to sell healthy foods directly to the consumers, it also serves as a promotional tool. One farmer grows delicious strawberries. Shepard said people couldn’t get enough. “People liked it and didn’t want to wait so they found where he was located and they visited him often.”

With an award under their belts, organizers are hoping to build on their momentum and be an even more defining part of the community. Shepard said he’s hoping to partner with the other local markets to create a coalition. “There’s a little competition from the different markets,” he said. “We’re hoping the surrounding towns try to beat us considering how good we did this year.”

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Year-round Local Food Finds at One of America’s Favorite: Winter Garden Farmers Market

The city of Winter Garden, Florida, is so supportive of its local agriculture that it bought and set aside land close to the downtown area specifically for farming and community gardens.  So it makes sense that residents are enthusiastic about the Winter Garden Farmers Market. Set in the charming city center, along brick roads and the pavilion, the market offers residents a chance to interact with local farmers and learn about their food. Patrons are extremely enthusiastic that their votes helped secure the Winter Garden Farmers Market a top spot in the American Farmland Trust’s 2012 America’s Favorite Farmers Market competition.

You can find just about anything at the Winter Garden Farmers Market, from fresh produce, organic meats and eggs, and goods made from locally grown foods. Winter Garden is located just outside Orlando and the climate allows for year-round growing. Florida is renowned for its citrus, so you don’t have to look far at the market to find your favorite variety of oranges, lemons, or tangerines. Fall is one of the best growing seasons for the area, so residents will have an opportunity to enjoy delicious herbs, beets, and even strawberries into the holiday season and beyond.

The market is about four years old. It has moved around to different locations but now has a perfect spot near the pavilion and bike paths, said Shannon Heron, project manager. “The downtown merchants association worked hard to make the old downtown very active and vibrant,” she said. “It has the real great old town feel and it pulls people into the downtown. It’s really an incredible location.”

On any given Saturday at the market you’ll find kids playing in the newly installed splash pad to stay cool, dog owners shopping for pet treats, and families enjoying freshly squeezed juice from local citrus. Patrons are completely loyal to their market and many come early in the morning to get the freshest produce. Musicians frequent the market to entertain shoppers and play games with kids. “It’s a really friendly, open sort of vibe,” Heron said.

The vendors also have a tight community. They help each other out if they are short on staff and they work closely with the downtown merchants. “Our produce guys are so busy,” Heron said. “They all watch out for each other.”

The market is home to a third-generation farmer. Through a partnership with the city, he farms about 10 acres of land owned by the city of Winter Garden. Dana Brown, market manager, said the city plans to set aside another 40 acres for others to farm, as well. The city recently bought about 100 acres, which will be set aside for parks and farmland. Brown said the city planner is a visionary with preserving local farmland and the community is in full support. There is even a community garden for residents to grow on their own plots of land.

“This is a new thing for the community, but they are just going with it,” Brown said. “There isn’t a lot of red tape. The city just said let’s do it right and do it big. They are very progressive.”

One of the local farmers plans to host a corn harvest festival to help celebrate the award from AFT. It will give residents a chance to see where their food is produced but they will also celebrate the fall harvest with tractor rides and a corn maze.

The organizers will continue to come up with interesting ways to promote their local growers and merchants and encourage the community to come out and enjoy the wide assortment of goods and food offered at the market. The goal is to build off the success from winning the America’s Favorite Farmers Market award and continue to encourage residents to support the local farmers.

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Hot Fun in the Summer Time: Ear Leaf Tissue Testing

It was July, almost August. And was HOT. I was burrowing my way through six foot tall corn in 100 degree temperatures! Last month I told you about testing the soil to get a read on how much nitrogen (think plant food) there is next to the corn plants to help them grow. We did that BEFORE the farmer gave the corn any additional fertilizer which made it a Pre-Sidedress Nitrate Tests (PSNT).

As a crop advisor for the BMP Challenge, I revisited the fields at the end of July to take Ear Leaf Tissue Samples. The plant’s silk coming from the top of the ears is still yellow but just about to turn brown meaning it’s our last chance to check up on the health of the plants prior to harvest. Walking the length of the field (about two football fields with 6-foot corn means I hadn’t seen daylight for 30 minutes!) and I periodically pulled off a leaf, the one that grows at the base of the ear of corn, to collect samples for testing.  Being in the field also gave me a chance to examine the crop for signs of stress, such as withered leaves from drought, yellowed leaves due to low nitrogen and insects.

These samples taken in BMP Challenge enrolled fields come from two areas: first from the “check strip,” where the farmer had applied nitrogen at a rate of his or her own choosing, and then from the remainder of the field where the nitrogen rate was determined by the PSNT results.  The samples of ear leaves help backup the PSNT results, showing that the portion of the field that had received a reduced amount of fertilizer would still have adequate nitrogen to make it through harvest.  But maybe even more important, the ear leaf test provides another data point, another topic to discuss when we sit down as a group with the participating farmers after the harvest. As a crop advisor, I work to provide BMP Challenge enrolled farmers with all the information to ponder, discussing their observations and the test results against their yields to evaluate the use of best management practices on their field.

The PSNT and Ear Leaf tests just provide a snapshot of the nutrients available to the plants on the day the samples are taken. They give the farmer one more piece of the complex puzzle that is nitrogen fertilizer management.  Much research has been done over the last several decades to determine the amount of each nutrient that is necessary to support growth. Mother Nature is unpredictable and soil types differ from farm to farm, so each farmer must have their management strategies. At the same time, it is impossible for any single test or guideline to consistently provide the “right” answer about how much fertilizer a farmer should apply.  The main reason I was out in the summer heat, melting and collecting the ear leaf samples was to give each farmer one more measurement of their crop’s progress in order to evaluate the recommendations that we made to them after the PSNT.

When people my age leave Virginia Tech with an ag degree and look at today’s economy, they know they will have to be innovative in order to remain profitable if they want to farm  The “slippery fish” of nitrogen that I work with as a crop advisor requires extra attention; it’s risky and being wrong is expensive. AFT’s BMP Challenge program is providing access to tools and knowledge to help farmers better manage their fertilizer usage. By offering insurance, AFT is encouraging producers to try new practices on their fields—like the one I walked through that hot July day—and not lose sleep at night worrying about yield loss. Using fertilizer more efficiently meets the double bottom line that farmers want: to improve the water in the stream while getting the most corn at the least cost.



About the Author: Dana Gochenour is a farmer and freelance writer in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. She can be reached at dgochen@vt.edu.

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Setting the Course for Improved Water Quality: Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana Sign Groundbreaking Agreement to Protect Water and Support Farmers

Nestled on the north bank of the Ohio River, Cincinnati is a stone’s throw from the bluegrass of Kentucky and Indiana’s horizon of corn and soybean. This month, the city served as the perfect backdrop for representatives from all three states to sign a historic agreement that will set the tone for the future of water quality across the region.

Ohio River

The groundbreaking agreement launches interstate water quality pilot trades in the Ohio River Basin, a program aimed to reduce the release of excess nutrients running off of farm fields into the network of waterways leading into the Ohio River, the largest tributary of the Mississippi River. The project, led by Electric Power Research Institute with assistance from American Farmland Trust, the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, the Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission, Hunton & Williams LLP, Kieser & Associates, LLC, and the University of California at Santa Barbara, marks the first time three states have come together to develop or implement an interstate trading program where all states operate under the same rules and a water quality credit generated in one state can be applied in another.

What is Water Quality Trading?

The goal of water quality trading is to improve the health of water sources, in this case the Ohio River and its tributaries, by reducing the excess nutrients leaving cities, factories and farms. It is an innovative market-based approach to reduce the release of excess nutrients from non-point sources – such as farm fields – into waterways. Water quality trading is:

  • Completely voluntary;
  • A source of revenue for farmers who can make further reductions in nutrients through planned conservation practices; and
  • A cost-effective alternative for regulated utilities, wastewater treatment plants and industries to meet environmental regulations by buying nutrient reduction credits from farmers.
A field tour of conservation practices on Schroer Farm in Patriot, Ind., showed possible credit-generation practices in action.

A field tour of conservation practices on Schroer Farm in Patriot, Ind., showed possible credit-generation practices in action.

By offering a financial incentive for farmers in the Ohio River Basin to implement conservation practices while at the same time improving water quality and saving money, water quality trading is a win-win for all involved. (Though geared toward similar AFT work in the Chesapeake Bay, our video “Nutrient Trading in Maryland” helps to highlight the pilot program now being established in the Ohio River Basin.)

A Voice for Farmers. A Vision for the Future

American Farmland Trust’s role in the project is to ensure that the water quality trading program is developed in a way that allows for full participation of farmers. Not only will these practices improve the health of the entire river basin, but they will help keep farmers on the land and actively farming by adding a new source of income to their operations – the sale of nutrient reduction credit to utility companies, wastewater treatment plants and other regulated point sources.

The plan will serve as the basis for the three states to implement pilot trades beginning in 2012 through 2015. Although some states have adopted trading policies or rules to govern trading within their jurisdictions, this is the first time that several states have come together to develop or implement an interstate trading program where all states operate under the same rules and a water quality

Representatives from Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio sign the Ohio River Basin Water Quality Trading Plan

Representatives from Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio sign the Ohio River Basin Water Quality Trading Plan credit generated in one state can be applied in another.

After three years of hard work, we’re just getting started. We plan to have the first pilot trades in place before the end of 2012 with the remainder implemented in 2013-2014. The water quality pilot trades will take place in up to 16 counties in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, and are expected to engage at least three power plants and up to 30 farms implementing conservation practices on up to 20,000 acres. Reduction of nutrients running from farm fields into waterways is expected to total approximately 45,000 pounds of nitrogen and 15,000 pounds of phosphorus annually.

At full-scale, the project could include up to eight states in the Ohio River Basin and would potentially create credit markets for 46 power plants, thousands of wastewater facilities and other industries, and approximately 230,000 farmers. There is much work left ahead in order to get there, but with the signatures transcribed on a balmy August day in Cincinnati, we have taken a critical giant leap in the right direction.


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.

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What is the BMP Challenge?

The BMP Challenge™ is a program that American Farmland Trust is running in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, in other Mid-Atlantic states, in New York, California and across the Midwest as a tool to help farmers implement BMPs, or Best Management Practices to achieve conservation goals, on their farmland. For farmers with fields in corn, nitrogen is one of the primary nutrients to help it grow, and farmers apply commercial forms of nitrogen fertilizer to provide the crop with added nutrients. The amount of nitrogen applied to the field is based on the farmer’s yield goal, or how many bushels of corn the farmer expects to grow per acre—one pound of nitrogen for one bushel of corn on average. But nitrogen’s availability to the plant is tricky, affected by temperature and the moisture in the soil. To ensure that the corn gets enough a farmer may apply extra nitrogen as insurance for reaching their yield goals.

Barn and corn field in Virginia's Shenandoah ValleyWhen more nitrogen (or any other nutrient) is applied than what the plant can utilize for growth, the excess can leave the field as runoff and contaminate waterways. Farmers have no interest in wasting expensive fertilizer or sending nutrients into nearby waterways, but their harvest is their pay check for the whole year. The risk of being wrong is great. The role that the BMP Challenge plays is to allow the farmer to compare a new practice, designed to be more nitrogen efficient, to their standard practice with a guaranteed payment if they lose yield.

When a farmer agrees to participate in the BMP Challenge a crop advisor, like me, works with them to collect a detailed history on the enrolled field, outlining the history of corn grown  and how much and what types of fertilizers have been applied to the ground. This allows us to establish how much nitrogen is already present in the soil and available for use by the newly planted crop. The crop advisor then asks what the farmer’s current yield goal is, so we can determine how much total nitrogen the corn will need by the end of the growing season.

Typically, farmers in the Shenandoah Valley apply fertilizer to corn twice; once at planting and again when they “sidedress” the balance when the corn is about knee high. This way fertilizer is available to the plant at every stage during the growing season. My job as a crop advisor is to help the farmer pinpoint exactly how much sidedress nitrogen is needed by using a Pre-Sidedress Nitrate Test, or PSNT.

The farmer and crop advisor collect soil samples 12 inches deep to measure the amount of nitrogen available to the plant just prior to the time when the young plants need the most fertilizer. The extra depth allows a more complete and accurate picture of how much nitrogen is available and helps guard against over fertilization. (Check out this video from the University of Wisconsin Extension for a look at PSNT in action.)

For the BMP Challenge™, We take soil samples from two different parts of the field.  One is a strip through the middle of the field, or check strip, where the farmer was encouraged to sidedress the crop at whatever rate they would typically use based on their soil type and yield goal.  In the remainder of the field the farmer agreed to only apply the amount of nitrogen recommended from the PSNT result.  It is possible that the PSNT could be the same as what the farmer had already planned or it could even call for more nitrogen, but often, the PSNT indicates that the nitrogen sidedress can be reduced or even eliminated without causing a loss in yield.

At a time when commercial fertilizer can be a third of corn’s total cost of production, any savings a farmer can find will make a huge difference for their bottom line.  Using a soil test to adjust nitrogen rates to the actual need can save money and improve water quality.  But what if it’s wrong?

By using a side-by-side comparison within the same field it is possible for the farmer to prove to him or her self that the PSNT can be trusted. And by performing the test under the umbrella of the BMP Challenge™, the risk of trying this new practice is eliminated.

Next up… Half-way to Harvest – What’s the Score? -Ear Leaf Tissue Testing in the BMP fields



About the Author: Dana Gochenour is a farmer and freelance writer in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. She can be reached at dgochen@vt.edu.

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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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