Tag Archives: conservation

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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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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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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Women and the Land: The First Illinois Lady Landowner Learning Circle

The face of American agriculture is undergoing a dramatic shift. As the overall farm population ages over the next 20 years, 70 percent of farmland is expected to change hands and women may own up to 75 percent of the land that is transferred.

Along with this changing demographic comes a new set of stories about what brought them to the land and a unique vision for it into the future. On April 16, we worked with the Woman, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN) and local partners to gather women farmland owners together for the first Lady Landowner Learning Circle in Illinois. It was a chance to learn from each other and to learn together about how their stories and visions may shape the landscape over the next several decades.

Learning circles, pioneered by WFAN, are participatory meetings where 12 to 25 women landowners come together in an informal, female-only setting to discuss their land and their hopes for that land.  Their concerns guide the discussion.  Although local female agricultural professionals join in to help provide answers, there are no formal presentations and everyone talks and listens and responds.

Sharing Stories

Challenges faced by female landowners were at the forefront of the discussion. What happens when sons and daughters decide not to return to the farm? As one woman explained, she lives on a centennial farm—meaning it has been operated by the same family for at least 100 years— is now leasing the 300 acres to the neighbor to farm. Her children plan to remain in their off-farm jobs, a far cry from the days when she and her husband rented additional acres, are not interested in farming. When she farmed with her husband, they rented additional acres.

Illness or death of a husband or other patriarch was another common theme among the participants. One woman grew up on a 25-acre strawberry farm in Massachusetts and married an Illinois farmer.  When her husband died 11 years ago, she took over farming their 200 acres. She now leases the land to her husband’s best friend and insists on conservation practices on the land.

Turning a Conservation Ethic Into Practice

Female landowners tend to have different goals for their land (like conserving their land and soils, having a diversity of crops and farm projects, protecting their families and contributing to the community).  They see land as a community asset, a place of beauty and a legacy and these characteristics make them perfect conservation partners.

While most women possess a strong conservation ethic, they are often unsure of how to translate those values into action.  WFAN has shown that peer group information sharing is very effective with women.  Within a year of attending a WFAN “learning circle” meetings, over 50 percent of participants take at least one conservation action on their land and become motivated advocates for improved conservation.

The day culminates with a bus tour to see first-hand how some of their concerns can be addressed by conservation practices. We toured the Upper Salt Fork watershed where AFT and its partners are actively working with  many of the approximately 130 farmers in the Upper Salt Fork segment of the Spoon River to significantly reduce the run-off of nutrients from farm fields. From the questions and comments on the bus, it was clear to see that the conversations and tour had really made an impact as several women appeared determined to get more conservation practices on their land.

The Next Chapter of Farmland Ownership

The next 10 years represent a significant window of opportunity for engaging women landowners in conservation. For various reasons, this audience has traditionally been under-served in agency outreach in spite of their interest in conservation.  Efforts like those by WFAN show that once women landowners are given the information and encouragement they need to take action, they will do so. Effective outreach to this population can have significant impact on the soil and water quality of the Mississippi River basin, if we act now before the next wave of land transitions begins.

American Farmland Trust would like to recognize the partners that made this day possible: Woman, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN), Prairie Rivers and the Champaign County Farm Bureau to hold the first women’s learning circle meeting in Illinois.  The Lumpkin Family Foundation and WFAN (through a McKnight Foundation grant) provided funding for this effort.


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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No Farms, No Food® Rally 2012: Better than Ever!

Farm and food advocates from around New York State laid solid groundwork for legislative funding to protect farmland, and sustain the business of agriculture, at American Farmland Trust’s third annual No Farms, No Food® Rally, held February 15 in Albany.

Our latest Rally brought together more than 100 individuals, representing 70 supporting organizations, and sent a powerful message to Governor Andrew Cuomo, Commissioner of Agriculture Darrel Aubertine, state legislators, and other New Yorkers. That message? We must strengthen our farm and food economy, protect farmland and the environment, and increase access to nutritious food grown in New York. Many participants described the day as “the best No Farms, No Food® Rally yet.”

An Administration Committed to Supporting Farms

2012 No Farms No Food Rally Participants

Jeff Jones, Land Trust Alliance; Janet Thompson, Tug Hill Tomorrow Land Trust; Fred Huneke, WAC; Stephen Kidd, Urban Garden in Harlem; Terry Wilbur, Oswego County Legislature. photo credit: Dietrich Gehring

Key state leaders underscored their commitment to strengthening New York’s farm and food policy. Lieutenant Governor Robert Duffy, along with state agriculture committee chairs Senator Patty Ritchie and Assemblyman Bill Magee, joined us at the Rally and spoke in support of our pro-farm agenda.

Robert Morgenthau, former Manhattan District Attorney and Special Counsel to American Farmland Trust, introduced Lieutenant Governor Duffy. In his opening remarks, Morgenthau, who owns a family farm in Dutchess County, explained the state’s commitment to farmland this way, “There’s bad news and good news. The bad news is that the state doesn’t have a lot of excess money around, and in past years the protection of farmland has not been a priority for the state. The good news is this administration is committed 100 percent to supporting farms.”

Lieutenant Governor Duffy, in his remarks, praised New York State agriculture. “Not only do we have the greatest state in the nation, but we have the greatest agricultural state in the nation. Agriculture is a $4.7 billion industry in the state. That is huge.”

Duffy was emphatic about Governor Cuomo’s support for agriculture. “He gets it, he understands, he listens,” said Duffy. The Lieutenant Governor also spoke of  his own personal interest in visiting farms and talking directly with American Farmland Trust, farmers and other supporters of New York’s farm and food systems, and about ways the state can help farmers build our farm and food economy.

Buy Local

Senator Patty Ritchie, Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, told an enthusiastic crowd that “eating local matters.” Ritchie represents one of the largest-dairy producing regions in the state.  It includes Oswego and Jefferson Counties, as well as the western half of St. Lawrence County. Ritchie is working with the state Office of General Services and Governor Cuomo to look for ways to bring more New York-produced food to Albany.

Rally participant Bhavani Jaroff of Long Island, and host of the Progressive Radio Network’s iEat Green, recorded her show from Albany on the day of the Rally.  She stressed to listeners and those in attendance that New York must “allocate enough money to keep farmers from needing to sell their land to developers in order to retire, and to make it possible for them to transition their land to a new generation of farmers.” Jaroff went on to say, “We all need to eat, and if we want access to fresh, local, sustainably raised fruits, vegetables and dairy, we need to support our farmers.”

Building Relationships

It is imperative that the voices of pro-farming, pro-farmland advocates ring throughout Albany in the days immediately ahead, as New York State leaders negotiate a budget and review pieces of legislation key to farming’s future.

Visit our website, to see great photos and media stories about the No Farms, No Food® Rally 2012. We encourage you to share the images and articles on your own websites and through social media to help spread the No Farms, No Food® message!

The deadline for a final state budget is March 30, though Governor Cuomo is shooting to have it completed even sooner.  Be sure to sign up for our email updates, if you haven’t already, and we’ll keep you updated during budget negotiations and as legislation we support makes its way through the legislature.

Last but certainly not least, remember that developing relationships with your elected leaders is critical!  Invite them to your farmers market, CSA or land trust event. Ask them to meet your town board or food co-op or take a tour of your community. They must not ever forget—No Farms, No Food®!


David Haight 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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Farm and Food News 3/2/12

Conservation Practices Show Dual Benefit in Maryland

The Maryland Department of Agriculture recently reported their findings related to the benefits of farmers utilizing cover crops. This year, the practice was used on 429,818 acres of farmland, resulting in better soil quality and reduced agricultural runoff.

A County’s Oral History of Farmland Protection

In the early 1960s, predictions of explosive population growth in California’s Napa Valley led to the founding of the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve. A recent book, “Oral Histories of Napa County’s Agricultural Preserve,” captures some of the voices who first launched the farmland protection movement in the region.

Documenting Life on the Farm

Four farmers in western North Carolina have been documenting their daily lives since July 2011 through a series of online videos. Part of a longer film-in-progress, the project of Carolina Farm Credit, is offering the farmers’ stories to connect food and community.

New York State Funds Agricultural Development Projects

In an effort to boost economic development in New York, the Empire State Development agency challenged communities last year to compete for funding through its Open for Business Program. Of the $785 million in grants awarded in 2011, $4.3 million was split among 14 agriculture projects, including an Agricultural Enterprise Park on Long Island.

California Community Continues Farmland Protection Legacy

For the past three decades, the Brentwood Agricultural Land Trust has battled development pressure to help protect more than 750 acres of farmland surrounding the city of Brentwood in California. In praise of the organization’s work—accounting for the most easements from any community in the state—one farmer explained, “My father, Stanley, was a farmer. I’m a farmer and my family will continue to farm here.”

House Agriculture Committee Announces Hearings

This week, House Ag Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK) announced field hearings taking place across the nation in preparation for the next farm bill. The first hearing will take place on March 9 in Saranac Lake, New York, with the series closing April 20 in Dodge City, Kansas.

Calling All Food Warriors!

Real Time Farms just announced the summer 2012 application opening for the Food Warrior internship program. Running from May 1 to August 20, Real Time Farms is looking for help in Boston, Chicago, Denver, Providence and Washington, D.C.

Upcoming Food and Farming Conferences

As part of Chicago’s Good Food Conference, the Good Food Financing Fair on March 15 will provide an opportunity for farmers and foodies to meet one-on-one with investors, economic development specialists, and other strategic partners to develop relationships and potentially work together.

The first Appalachian Food & Agriculture Summit will take place March 23 to 25 in Blacksburg, Virginia. Farmers,  students  and interested community members are invited to register.

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A 2012 Farm Bill Almanac

Predictions for upcoming seasons are laid out each year in the pages of The Old Farmer’s Almanac — charting the sun, moon, tides and past weather records to forecast the year ahead. With that in mind, we’ve done some calculations of our own and gauged the temperature of discussions surrounding farm and food policy for the 2012 Farm Bill.

Should the stars align, here are our predictions for topics to anticipate during the farm bill reauthorization process this spring.

Deficits and Cuts

The national deficit continues to loom overhead and the debate over the 2012 Farm Bill will be dominated like few others this century by deficit pressure. Every section of the legislation will be affected, but by how much we do not know. However, we do know that the deal to increase the debt ceiling means the farm bill will be cut by about $15 to $16 billion as a result of automatic sequestration. These cuts will most likely be the starting point—and not the end point—for final numbers.

Safeguarding the Environment

For conservation, 2012 will be a year when climate and environmental issues establish new trends and challenges. Dramatic weather events in 2011 created highs and lows in American agriculture, and coming years will be no exception. The discussion will focus on how to make conservation programs more efficient while equipping farmers with conservation tools and programs to meet environmental challenges and regulatory burdens.

With conservation programs having already contributed more than $2 billion to the nation’s deficit reduction through appropriations cuts, we think the farm bill debate this spring should center on promoting conservation funding without the threat of additional cuts. Conservation programs are too valuable to lose now—and for our future.

The Future of Farm Support Programs

Caught up in the budget belt-tightening are proposals to alter farm support, or subsidy, programs. For the first time in two decades, it is likely that direct payments will be eliminated. What will replace them is unclear, but the debate is currently focused on the appropriate role of government in helping farmers address risk.

We believe that  new safety net programs must protect farms from risks they can’t control, while also minimizing the programs’ influence on the economic and environmental behavior of farmers. The debate will be vigorous but we believe it will be critical to creating a farm support system that works effectively for both farmers and consumers.

Who Will be Farming and Stewarding the Land?Woman farmer and child looking out of a barn

Now more than any time since the end of World War II, it’s important for the nation to have a serious discussion about the generational and gender shifts happening in American agriculture.

According to the 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture, there are more than five times as many farmers at age 65 and older as there are 35 and younger. As the overall farm population ages, the influence of female landowners is predicted to rise.— 70 percent of farmland is expected to change hands in the next 20 years, with women potentially ending up  owning most of it. While we face the critical question of how land will be transitioned, at the same time we see the rise of young adults looking to start careers in agriculture but facing challenges securing land and succeeding in farming.

It will be difficult for farm policy leaders to ignore the changing demographics in agriculture. We think changes in land ownership, land stewardship and the engagement of young and beginning farmers in agriculture should be part of the discussion as Congress addresses programs for farmland protection, farm viability, and conservation.

Strengthening America’s Farm and Food System

Lawmakers will need to look systematically at what rural development policy is supposed to do to help today’s rural America.

The 2012 Farm Bill can be a catalyst to help rural America by finding ways to stimulate new market opportunities for agriculture and further support for local and regional food systems. Consumer demand for local food continues to rise, and farm policy can play a critical role in helping farmers provide it.

A Healthier Nation

Public health and nutrition, and the intersection with agriculture, is currently at the forefront of national interest. Amid on-going conversations about public health and chronic diseases is a focus on the availability of fresh, healthy food.

The connection between healthier diets and agricultural production is very real and easy to see. The demand for healthy food opens markets for agricultural products and potentially  helps keep farmers farming. Less clear, but no less important, is the role that public health demands may play in   local and regional food systems. The next farm bill presents the opportunity to explore public health while also creating market opportunities for farmers. We think 2012 will be the beginning of a long term trend of a new public health constituent group in the farm bill.

The forecast for the 2012 Farm Bill will take the direction of real forces shaping farm and food policy. As discussions around the 2012 Farm Bill get underway in Washington, we’ll be asking supporters of America’s farms and food to learn more, speak up and be heard.

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Farm and Food News 1/20/12

Farmers embrace conservation tillage

Farmers in the San Joaquin Valley are switching to conservation tillage at a fast pace. This increase in interest comes at a much needed time for farmers and the environment in California’s Central Valley. With a potential for reduced operating costs and improved soil composition, conservation tillage has many benefits.

Minnesota increases water conservation practices

The USDA, EPA, and state of Minnesota have come together to develop a new state conservation program that will protect rivers, streams and lakes by encouraging farmers to adopt conservation practices that reduce nutrient run-off and improve water quality.

Mayors discuss food policy

Food policy was among the topics discussed this week during the annual Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C. Mayor Menino of Boston heads the discussion of the Food Policy Task Force, covering topics from urban food policy  to SNAP benefits.

Bringing fair food access to you

Gus Schumacher, American Farmland Trust board member, discusses his passion for farming and fair food access. During his interview, he discusses the growth of farmers markets in our struggling economy and the volunteers who make them possible.

Renewable energy for farms

Alternative sources of energy are making their way onto farms. The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Initiative (SARE) has been studying the best opportunities for renewable energy on farms, including solar, wind and fuels from animal waste.

Coventry Farmers Market pushes ahead successfully

The Coventry Regional Farmers’ Market is happy to announce that they have made it past another hurdle in their efforts to save their market. The difficulties of finding a new location after their lease was terminated have made it difficult to begin planning for their coming season.

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