The National Young Farmers Coalition released a report on Sept. 30 that reveals how current farmland conservation practices are failing working farmers and new farming opportunity.
The report, “Farmland Conservation 2.0: How Land Trusts Can Protect America’s Working Farms,” surveyed 200 land trust leaders from across the United States and found that one-quarter of land trusts have seen protected farmland move out of production.
Below is a portion of that report:
A new generation of farmers needs land to satisfy the demand for fresh, local produce, but America’s working farms near urban markets are increasingly being developed or sold to wealthy estate buyers. Unable to afford the market price for farmland, working farmers are being driven from the most valuable growing regions in the country — the land directly surrounding 80 percent of the American public who now live in cities.
Over the past 50 years, the American land trust community has demonstrated great success in protecting farmland from development. Today, this community holds the key to ensuring that farm families have access to affordable farmland near urban markets through innovative conservation easements. These conservation easements keep farmland owned by farmers and in agricultural production.
Although these new conservation easements were adopted decades ago by the state of Massachusetts, the Vermont Land Trust and others, they have yet to be utilized on a large scale. Based on our national survey, we believe these easements are effective, important and could be scaled up with the appropriate incentives, professional development and support for the land trust community.
The National Young Farmers Coalition calls on land trusts and public and private funders to adopt and incentivize new conservation easements that keep land affordable for working farmers, thereby strengthening our national food security and addressing the immediate needs of new farmers.
This report features a national survey of 223 land conservation professionals, two focus groups and interviews with conservation leaders. Trends in farmland affordability and land conservation are reviewed based on secondary data from United States Census of Agriculture, academic and nonprofit sources.
• Land protected by traditional conservation easements is being underutilized or is going out of production. There is strong recognition among established land trusts of this trend. Overall, 24 percent of land trust respondents said that they had seen protected farms taken out of production.
• Traditional conservation easements are designed to protect farmland from residential and commercial development, but they do not prevent non-farmers from purchasing protected farms as estate properties. Land transitioning away from farmer ownership contributes to the trend of farms being underutilized or taken out of production altogether. Survey participants identified non-farmers as the primary threat to the continued agricultural use of easement protected land.
• Innovative land trusts are utilizing stronger conservation easements that keep farmland in full production by farmers, but these practices are not widespread. More than two-thirds of land trust respondents had limited or no familiarity with easements that make land affordable to farmers.
• Young farmers represent valuable partners for land trusts seeking to protect working farms. Only 18 percent of land trusts reported that they helped to transition working farmland to the next generation of farmers.
• Bringing farmland affordability strategies outlined in this report to scale will require incentives from public and private sector funders of the land conservation community, professional development training and strategies to minimize perceived risks for land trust boards. Nearly 90 percent of land trusts said they would support targeting public funds for conservation easements with affordability protections.
1. Public funding for the purchase of agricultural conservation easements should be directed towards easements that keep farms owned by working farmers and in production.
2. To increase farmland protected by affordability and production requirements, cities, foundation and private philanthropists must work together to expand funding for innovative farmland protection projects.
3. The USDA should add farmland affordability and production requirements to its national ranking criteria for the Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (or future Agriculture Conservation Easement Program), as well as clarify existing rules to make clear that easements with OPAV or similar language can be funded.
4. In addition to supporting farmland protection that keeps farms in production, states should adopt incentives to encourage landowners to transfer land to new and beginning farmers.
5. Land trusts that are focused on the viability of agricultural communities must target new and beginning farmers as conservation buyers and strategic partners. ❖
The National Young Farmers Coalition was founded in 2010 by three farmers in the Hudson Valley in New York, who were struggling to find affordable land.
Co-founders Lindsey Lusher Shute and Benjamin Shute wrote an op-ed, titled “Keep Farmland for Farmers,” that appeared in the New York Times on Oct. 1, www.nytimes.com/2013/10/01/opinion/keep-farmland-for-farmers.html.