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.
About 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.