Tag Archives: federal policy

A Time to Protect the Land: New Paths to Preservation

This is the second in a series of five stories outlining American Farmland Trust’s vision for the 2012 Farm Bill. For more information on our recommendations and positions, please visit www.farmbillfacts.org.

More than 30 years ago, American Farmland Trust was founded by a group of farmers and citizens concerned about the rapid loss of farmland to development. Since then, we have worked as a national leader on the issue, helping to drive farmland protection efforts  around the country with countless state and local partners. However, even as this movement has spread,  so have the forces of farmland destruction.

The 2012 Farm Bill presents an opportunity to set the course for the next 30 years. With increasing demands on U.S. agriculture to produce food, fiber, energy and eco-services, the need to protect the nation’s irreplaceable farmland resources is more critical than ever. At the same time, budget constraints will challenge the role of the federal government in protecting farmland in the future.

Working Lands Easement Programs
Land Retirement Programs

Currently, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has jurisdiction over five easement programs: two focused on working agricultural lands and the remainder on retiring environmentally sensitive land and taking it out of production. The number of similar programs has caused confusion in farm country and concern in the nation’s capital, eliciting calls for consolidation. American Farmland Trust agrees. If done right, consolidation provides an opportunity to create more focused and results-oriented easement programs while maintaining the critical elements that make these programs successful.

A Common Purpose, Permanence, and Structure

The Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program and Grassland Reserve Program share common objectives: keep agricultural land in production and contribute to local economies. Combining them under a Working Lands Easement Program will create a stronger program without sacrificing effectiveness. The last farm bill already brought the two programs closer together, making Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program more range land friendly and instituting the Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program model of local partnerships as an option in Grassland Reserve Program, so that the program no longer operates solely through USDA. That way federal funding is leveraged with other funds through local partners to get a bigger bang for the buck. In fact, through 2010, Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program projects have matched more than $1.80 in non-federal funds for every federal dollar invested.

New England farm in fogThe programs that take environmentally fragile land out of production—Wetlands Reserve Program, Emergency Watershed Program and Healthy Forests Reserve Program—also can be merged. A consolidated Land Retirement and Restoration Program would continue to offer protection for previously farmed wetlands; forest lands that support biodiversity and critical wildlife habitat; and threatened farmed floodplains. By remaining separate from the Working Lands Easement Program, this new program would be able to maintain the restrictive easement terms that are crucial when retiring fragile land but would cripple efforts to protect working lands.

Additionally, we must continue to strengthen the farm and ranch land protection movement through innovative new programs. We propose instituting a new Debt for Working Lands Easement program, a restructuring option for farm-owner loans through Farm Service Agency and secured by real estate. This program would retire debt on agriculturally productive land in return for permanent conservation easements, protecting the land and allowing it to continue being used for agricultural production. This tool would both further farmland protection and provide an option to help farmers and ranchers eliminate debt and remain in farming.

The threats to America’s farm and food resources are real. Through farm and ranch land conservation on both working and retired land, we can protect the land base we need to grow food while keeping the land vibrant and healthy into the future. The 2012 Farm Bill is instrumental in making land conservation more effective. American Farmland Trust’s vision of new programs and tools—the Working Lands Easement Program, the Land Retirement and Restoration Program and Debt for Working Lands Easement—can strengthen the farm and ranch land protection movement and truly help farmers, ranchers and communities meet their conservation needs.

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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How Should Federal Budget Cuts Impact Farms, Food and Farmland?

As legislators and the president face our fiscal realities, federal budget decisions are being made right now that will affect agriculture programs this year and through 2012.

United States CapitalThe required cut to 2011 appropriations—$32 billion in total—sets the boundaries on government spending for the remainder of the fiscal year. It will be up to the House Appropriations Committees, including the Agriculture, Rural Development and Food & Drug Administration Subcommittee, to decide how and where to cut spending. These committees can take an across the board percentage cut to the agencies, or, they can recommend cuts to individual programs.

The overall challenge issued to the Agriculture Appropriations Committee is to cut $3.2 billion of discretionary spending from their budget of $23.3 billion. Finding where to make the cuts is complicated because many programs are interconnected. For instance if the discretionary program for conservation guidance to farmers loses funding, the support needed for everything from farmland preservation and conservation to food and nutrition programs (food assistance), food safety, and renewable energy is threatened—putting programs at risk of being unable to provide the solutions they are intended to provide.

As the fate of the 2011 budget is ironed out, a look to 2012 is even more daunting. Cuts projected to surface in the 2012 budget proposal are estimated at $75 billion in discretionary funds alone. Further cuts to meet deficit reduction goals could possibly dip into programs like the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program or the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, threatening initiatives that provide the very basis for conservation and land protection, help advance rural prosperity, and create greater access to local and healthy food for consumers.

The federal farm bill programs are a key source of support for farmers’ and ranchers’ environmental stewardship, but conservation program funding has already been targeted for budget cuts. Farmers and ranchers are under increasing pressure from both consumers and regulators to address environmental concerns while at the same time, facing record demand from world food markets. In order to grow and prosper, agriculture must meet this demand while also protecting the environment—a tall order. The 2012 Farm Bill must reaffirm the importance of environmental stewardship, while also doing more with fewer dollars—improving the cost-effectiveness of the conservation programs, promoting new income streams like ecosystem service markets, and making it easier for farmers to adopt environmentally sound practices.

Balancing the value of federal programs while also balancing the budget is a difficult proposition and begs the question: What is the best thing we can do with the money available? It requires a look at what goals we have for our nation’s farm and foods, and it’s a challenge we’d like you to consider!

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