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Protecting Farmland by the Acre—and the Inch—in the Midwest: An Interview with Mike Baise, Midwest Director, American Farmland Trust

What first brought you to American Farmland Trust (AFT) and what has kept you engaged in your first year with the organization?

I grew up on a grain and livestock farm in central Illinois and worked in agriculture in Illinois and Indiana most of my professional career. Shortly after graduate school, I began working at the Illinois Department of Agriculture where they had programs involving farmland protection and soil conservation. I became aware of AFT through the Department in the early 1980’s and respected their work and found it appealing. I also viewed agricultural policy as being driven more and more by environmental concerns and I thought of AFT as being a bridge between the agricultural and environmental communities. I still think that is an important function of the organization and I am interested in being a part of that effort.

I think most folks who have heard of American Farmland Trust immediately think about preserving acres of farmland. If you’ve ever flown over or driven through Indiana, Illinois and Iowa, you know there are a lot of acres of farmland also with prime soils. I’ve thought about AFT’s work and approaches to promote the AFT brand in the Midwest and the best visual idea I’ve come up with is preserving both precious acres of farmland and precious inches of topsoil.

What would you say was one of your favorite or fondest memories from the past year?

Early in the year, I think it was probably the first weekend in February, John Hardin, who is on AFT’s board of directors and a Purdue Trustee, asked me if I wanted to attend the Purdue Ag Alumni Fish Fry with him. It’s a big event in Indiana agriculture and anybody that’s anybody in Indiana agriculture attends it. I happily went along and was delighted to find out that the luncheon speaker was a guy named Howard Buffet. Howard is the son of financier Warren Buffet and also is an Illinois farmer and has a charitable foundation.  His message that day struck me as being perfect for the Purdue alumni audience. It was all about food security, not just U.S. food security, but global food security and the importance of soils and soil health and tillage systems and cover crops. It was a fascinating speech and I was really jazzed by his remarks.

Also later that same month, I had an opportunity to attend a meeting at Purdue Research Farm about cover crops, the growing crops you put on the land after the corn and soybeans are harvested. They’re not commodity crops; they’re considered something that prevents soil erosion and adds to organic matter and other wonderful things that help with the health and the conditioning of the soil.

I would say those two events probably did more than anything else to shape my thinking about what I might be able to do with AFT in Indiana and Illinois.

In Illinois, AFT is working with partners to host Lady Landowners Learning Circles. Could you talk a bit about that project?

For many years I worked for the Indiana Farm Bureau, an organization that represents the interests of agriculture, farmers and farm families. One thing I observed was that as farm couples age, typically women live longer than men. After they become widows, women are frequently in charge of a very valuable asset, meaning the farmland, and they may or may not have been engaged in dealing with government programs or some of the institutions that impact the farmland itself. I thought there’s an opportunity here, a niche for American Farmland Trust to play in helping educate and empower women who own or control the land. Through conversations with my new AFT colleague, Anne Sorensen, I found that we both had that same thinking in common. So we are making the case those women landowners have a lot of influence on who rents the land and whether or not conservation will be applied to the land.

My father and mother were a team in their farming career. Their goal in life was to buy a farm, own their own land and raise and educate their two sons. And they were successful in that both of their sons have college educations and they bought and paid for a modest farm in west central Illinois.  My dad passed away in 1993. My mother, as a widowed land owner, was fortunate in that she had a son as her tenant. But a lot of other women in that same circumstance don’t have a son or a daughter or that trusted tenant. There’s this challenge of women having enough information and knowledge to be able to deal with their tenants in an empowered way. When your partner passes on, there’s the immediate shock of the loss and then there’s the secondary shock of, “Well, what am I going to do? How am I going to manage? How am I going to take care of this asset that we spent our entire lives building?” They need information and confidence to make informed decisions and there could be a role for a national organization like AFT.

What do you think are the most important steps for AFT in the Midwest in the coming year?

First, I would say the cultivation of women landowners. Accelerating of adoption of cover crops would be important. Also, I had a recent and interesting phone call with the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District. They had been contacted by the Urbana- Champaign Sanitary District, the water treatment utility. They are really interested in exploring work with farmers to reduce phosphorus and nitrates in surface waters so that they might avoid having to build a large and expensive addition to their water treatment plant. Their thinking parallels our Ohio River Basin Water Quality Trading pilot in the states of Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky.

If other Illinois municipalities were to decide to support on-farm conservation to address surface water nutrient loading that could be a significant new source of conservation funding. If a city like Chicago were to support conservation practices being applied over land in the Illinois River Valley that would be a very big deal. If we can be successful in the Ohio River Basin and have a couple good examples to go to big municipalities like Chicago, maybe we can sell them on a way of cleaning up the water in the Upper Mississippi River Basin.


About the Author: Mike Baise joined American Farmland Trust in January 2012 as the Midwest Director. Baise’s primary responsibilities include managing projects that help farmers improve water quality, engaging stakeholders to develop policy, and finding practical solutions that result in viable farms and an improved environment.

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Spreading the No Farms No Food® Message in New York: An Interview with David Haight, New York Director, American Farmland Trust

What brought you to American Farmland Trust and what has kept you here for 13 years?

New York farmer walking through field with sonsI grew up in a very rural part of Upstate New York in a community that was dominated by dairy farms and apple trees. What I always appreciated growing up was the importance of helping to protect the natural environment but also to do it in a way that would allow people to make a living from the land. I saw it first-hand in the work that my neighbors were doing. American Farmland Trust is a national leader in finding ways of protecting the land but also supporting the people that are making their living from that land. So AFT was a natural fit.

Part of the reason I am still here is the people. I very much enjoy the people that have worked for American Farmland Trust. The commitment they have for the mission of this organization is very deep. We also work with some tremendous partners here in New York and we have the opportunity to see people that are really having an impact on the lives of a lot of New Yorkers.

Every day is a little different. No two days are the same and I think there are incredible challenges here and that makes coming to work fun.

What was one of the greatest accomplishments in for American Farmland Trust in New York in 2012?

I think it was a pivot year for AFT and our work in New York. Let’s face it, the last four years have been really, really tough. A lot of the public funding sources that we rely on for our work have been decimated. I think that in 2012 we saw that perhaps we are starting to rebuild some of the things that have been hurt so deeply. For example, our state farmland protection program got a boost in funding in 2012, up to $12 million. That program permanently protected 20 farms in 2011-2012. Those are 20 farm families and it is 6,000 acres of farmland that is now going to be permanently protected in this state.

We also really are at the earliest stages in, I think, some of the most exciting projects we’ve had here at AFT in a long time. Diane Held’s work with the New Generation Farmer initiative in helping new farmers find land in helping the senior generation transfer their farms successfully, I think the work is phenomenal. The Farms to Institutions in New York State initiative has just tremendous potential for AFT. I’m very excited about some of the work that Laura TenEyck is doing with an engagement campaign and hopefully in 2013 we’re going to take significant steps forward in getting more New Yorkers personally involved in helping stop the loss of farmland. I see the potential being very bright for AFT and our work in 2013.

Could you share an inspiring or memorable moment from the No Farms No Food Rally and Lobby Day?

I have the mental image of our Lieutenant Governor [Robert Duffy] joining us, talking about Governor Cuomo’s commitment to food and agriculture as an economic development priority. He was the mayor of the city of Rochester when American Farmland Trust gave Rochester the America’s Favorite Farmers Market award. He has seen personally how agriculture has such economic development potential in New York and how that can mean new jobs and new opportunities. He spoke very eloquently about that.

So did Robert Morgantheau who was our keynote speaker and a former Manhattan district attorney. It was a very heartening thing to see Mr. Morgantheau there with his son Josh, who is now managing their family farm in the Hudson Valley, pointing to the connection that farms have to our history, talking about Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill visiting their farm. But then he quickly moved into how their farm is helping to bring fresh produce into different communities in Brooklyn and Manhattan and the new CSA that they have. This connection with our history and our legacy in the Hudson Valley but also a lot of the interest in better diet and public health and some of the other connections we have here in New York. Those two people saying some of the things that they did really stood out for me. Laurie what comes to your mind when you think back?

Is there anyone that has inspired the way you thought about a challenge or approach with your land transition and next generation farmer work in New York?

We held two next generation farmer forums here in New York, one in Hyde Park last fall and one out in east Aurora. Matt Schober (Cool Whisper Farm) spoke, a farmer from Columbia County who was dealing with a farm transfer problem and wanted to get into grass-fed beef. The family had a small dairy farm in the Hudson Valley. His dad wanted to bring him back home to the family farm but he couldn’t afford to just gift the farm to his one son that wanted to come home. He didn’t feel it was fair. And the son was grappling with, “How do we make this work?”

For me, Matt just crystalized so much of the challenge for that senior generation, for his dad, but then also for him, as somebody that wanted to continue this family farm but was just struggling with the same sets of issues. Even though he grew up on a farm, he had gone off to school and he knew agriculture. It wasn’t a new experience for him but the challenges were so real. We need to be talking about both sides of the story. I think sometimes you get caught up in the young person that’s getting into agriculture. I think that’s a compelling story but we can’t forget the other side of the equation.

What are the most important steps moving forward in 2013 for your work in New York?

There are a few things that we’re going to be rolling forward with in 2013. We have one of our biggest water quality projects on eastern Long Island. We started to work with 10 farmers in helping them reduce their use of fertilizer to help protect Long Island Sound. I think we’re poised in 2013 to really ramp that up a notch and expand the number of farmers we work with and start looking at other types of crops that farmers are growing.

Our plans are to launch in 2013 this Greater Hudson Valley FarmLink network which will be a combination of a website, a series of training programs, and a network of supporting match facilitators to connect people that are looking for farms and have farmland available. So that is, I think, a very exciting program for 2013.


About the Author: David Haight is New York Director of American Farmland Trust and aids state and federal legislators as they work on agricultural and land conservation legislation. He has helped coordinate projects that have permanently protected more than 4,000 acres of New York farmland.

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