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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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