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Planning for Landscape Integrity in the 21st Century

The National Agricultural Landscapes Forum brought together thought-leaders from around the country to foster a deeper understanding and dialogue about major trends and issues shaping the future of agriculture, conservation and rural regions. Held April 7 and 8 in the shadow of a federal government shutdown, the forum put forward policy and program opportunities to increase government effectiveness and engender cross-jurisdictional collaborations that improve agricultural and conservation outcomes in a sober budgetary environment.

The following is the first in a series of stories that will reflect on the major themes from the forum and what they mean for 21st century agriculture.

A failure to plan is a plan to fail

(L to R) Blue Ribbon Panel Members A.G. Kawamura, Patrick O'Toole and Varel Bailey

The need to think strategically about the future of agriculture was a sentiment shared among the conservation leadership gathered at the recent National Agricultural Landscapes Forum. Looking at the landscape from his vantage as former California Secretary of Agriculture, A.G.Kawamura described California AgVision 2030—a stakeholder-driven effort to shape the state’s food and farming system—as an example of how to bring diverse interests to the table to move agricultural policy into the 21st century. Calling for an agricultural renaissance, Kawamura shared his perspective on converging watersheds, foodsheds and energysheds that will create dynamic communities and end the 20th century exodus from rural America. “The human landscape means there’s an ag landscape as a part of the human environment,” he explained. “How do we plan the environment so it’s sustainable in all its different aspects?”

One answer came from Richard Barringer, Research Professor in Planning, Development and Environment at the University of Southern Maine. Barringer pointed to the New England governors’ Report of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Land Conservation. This ground-breaking initiative addresses five regional landscape themes, including keeping “Farmlands in Farming” and “Forests as Forests.” While New England, according to Barringer, is a “land of rugged individualists, we’re living in new time,” and this effort embodies several key principles: private ownership creates challenges and opportunity; collaboration is absolutely necessary; and conservation solely for natural benefits is no longer enough–today we must incorporate the social and economic benefits. Working together must be a part of the plan. Inspired by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsak’s address at an America’s Great Outdoors workshop in March, Barringer concluded, “Our conservation legacy will be defined by new partnerships and collaboration.”

A changing demographic landscape

A necessity for more effective collaboration points to a need to understand who will be farming in the 21st century. In a poignant keynote address, Sec. Vilsak’s Chief of Staff, Krysta Harden, asked, “Are we talking to all the right people to ask them what they need or are we only talking to people we are comfortable with and know?” She pressed further: “Are we talking to people who feel like they don’t usually have a place at the table?”

According to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture, the average age of farmers in the country is 57.

Walter Hill, Dean of the College of Agricultural, Environmental and Natural Sciences at Tuskegee University, reminded us that historically we have not succeeded in engaging the whole community. The 2007 Census of Agriculture shows growing ethnic, racial and gender diversity and a rapidly aging farm population. Farm operators 75 years and older increased by 20 percent while those under age 25 dropped 30 percent. Farmers aged 65 or older own 21 percent of America’s farmland, suggesting a huge transfer of land is imminent.

Hill challenged the audience, comprised largely of gray-haired men, “to get inclusion from every group that you can.” He advised, “Building trust is a monster; it takes time.” By 2042, the U.S. Census Bureau also predicts that current minority populations will become the majority, and it is time to start now if we want to be ready.

Beyond the tipping point?

As former Secretary of Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets Roger Allbee pointed out, it has been 30 years since the National Agricultural Lands Study (NALS), the only time the federal government has comprehensively assessed the challenges and opportunities facing the nation’s agricultural land base. Since then, he said, “We’ve lost as much farmland as Illinois and New Jersey put together.” Proportionally more of our best land has been lost, especially prime farmland and cropland. As Craig Cox, senior vice president of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Environmental Working Group stated bluntly, “The 21st century reality is we’ll have less land and water with which to do more.”

Since NALS, we have developed 41 million acres of rural land—or one out of three acres ever developed in this country. Cox was spot on when he said we’ve been “losing rather than gaining ground.”

(L to R) Ross Racine, Jon Scholl, Otto Doering III, Varel Bailey, Julia Freedgood, A.G. Kawamura, John Stierna

Assuming development continues its historical pattern—consuming our best agricultural soils fastest— Jeff Herrick, research soil scientist with USDA Agricultural Research Service, believes demand for farmland will drive expansion onto marginal lands or rangelands. He called for resilient landscapes that have the capacity to recover from extreme weather events: “Sustainable production at landscape scale.” However, with a rapid increase in non-operator landowners, especially in the Corn Belt, Iowa State Assistant Professor J. Gordon Arbuckle, Jr., predicts that future landowners will be further removed from the land, both geographically and culturally, less likely to participate in working lands programs and will spend less on conservation.

A challenge worth taking

If we continue these patterns, where will we be in 2042 when the world population is predicted to be nine billion people? The National Agricultural Landscapes Forum presented a valuable baseline but now we need to answer the big questions: How much land will we need to meet 21st century demands not just for food, fiber and fuel but also for clean air and water and biodiversity? What do we need to do now to secure it? Who will be the farmers and ranchers of tomorrow and what resources will they have to conserve and protect our precious agricultural landscape?

What rang clear from the voices emerging from the forum was the need to think strategically and plan for the future of agriculture, conservation and our precious land and water resources. As Craig Cox advised, “We will have to run much faster and smarter to stay in the same place.” It has never been more urgent to conduct a forward-looking assessment of the agricultural landscape and create the vision and policy direction needed to ensure—borrowing from Aldo Leopold—its integrity, stability and embodiment of community.

About the Author: Julia Freedgood is Managing Director for Farmland and Communities at American Farmland Trust.

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