Let the conference begin. The House and Senate Farm Bill conferees will soon begin work to align their versions of the 2018 Farm Bill. This process and the passage of the Farm Bill by September 30, when the 2014 bill expires, is critical in a period of great uncertainly for American farmers. As we move into this next phase, American Farmland Trust reaffirms the need for conferees to protect America’s farmland and ranchland from development and for the next generation by fully funding the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) in the Conservation Title.
Farmland, farming and farmers are under threat and not just from trade wars and extreme weather. American Farmland Trust’s recent report, “Farms Under Threat: The State of America’s Farmland,” revealed that we are losing farmland at nearly twice the rate previously documented. The statistics are alarming. Almost 31 million acres irreversibly lost between 1992 and 2012. Three acres gone every minute. 175 acres per hour no longer available to produce food, fuel and fiber, or to support farm enterprises and the broader rural economy.
That farmland is being lost to development should cause us pause. That development disproportionately occurred on agricultural lands, often our most productive, versatile and resilient lands that surround urban areas, should cause us to stop dead in our tracks. Sixty-two percent of all development in the U.S. that occurred between 1992 and 2012 occurred on farmland.
Better planning policies and compact growth strategies at all levels of government are needed to stem this loss. But we have a proven program right now that can permanently protect the most productive, and most at-risk, farm and ranch lands.
The Farm Bill’s Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) is a critically important federal conservation program implemented by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. The Agricultural Land Easement (ACEP-ALE) subprogram is arguably the most cost-effective program in the Conservation Title, leveraging state and local funds to purchase agricultural easements from farmers and ranchers. Restoring annual funding of ACEP to the $500 million level, as it was in 2017, gives farmers, ranchers and communities a chance to protect the farmland and ranchland that sustains them and all of us. At this year’s funding level of $250 million, 93% of applications went unfunded.
By keeping agricultural land in agriculture, this program has a huge impact on farm families and businesses. Like the Hunter family, who worked with the Dakota County (MN) Farmland and Natural Areas Program and used federal funds to permanently protect 134 acres of their 4th generation, 160-acre farm, and then used the funds to ensure continued family ownership and operation and to invest in an improved manure management system. Or Jill and Nate Lada, new to farming, who were able to purchase a farm protected with federal funds and funds from the Ann Arbor Township’s Farmland and Open Space Program at the agricultural value of $3000 an acre as opposed to the development value of $8500 per acre. Or the Dahlstrom family, who worked with Hill Country Conservancy, Hays County, the City of Austin, Texas, and the NRCS to protect their fifth-generation ranch and then used the proceeds from the easement sale to pay impending taxes, avoiding the sale of land.
In addition to full funding, it’s important also that ACEP-ALE not be diluted in its emphasis. We ask that conferees keep the Senate Agriculture Committee provision that continues the intended use of ACEP-ALE for working farm and ranchland. Expanding eligibility to 100% forested lands would be duplicative of other forestland protection programs and stress an already oversubscribed program.
The United States is blessed with more arable land than any other nation on earth – perhaps our greatest resource. Perhaps because of its abundance, we take our land for granted. But that can’t continue, not if we hope to leave our grandchildren a livable planet. Since its founding in 1980, AFT has worked with state and local governments and agricultural land trusts —many of whom utilize ACEP funds — to permanently protect over 6.5 million acres. This work must continue in earnest.
Farmland grows our food, supports our rural communities, and contributes a trillion dollars a year to our economy. Well-managed farmland protects wildlife, controls floods, suppresses fires, and protects our water and wildlife. It also provides open space and recreation that many Americans cherish. Beyond that, farmland offers a unique tool to combat climate change, a way to sequester carbon through natural means that improve our soils. We simply can’t hope to reduce atmospheric carbon aggressively enough unless we actively manage our farmland to pull more carbon from the air.
Our future depends on having enough farmland to both feed us and to restore our planet. And this requires a holistic vision of the future: one that acknowledges farmland as irreplaceable infrastructure we cannot afford to lose; that sees farming practices that retain topsoil and rebuild soil health as necessary if that land is going to serve us in perpetuity; and that views farmers as the stewards of that land, worthy of our fervent support — because, at heart, what these farmers do is for all of us.
We will never save farmland at the scale needed without a comprehensive package of forward-looking policies. And we are far from there today. But full funding for ACEP-ALE at $500 million annually is an important place to start. If we don’t take this step forward, we fall backward, losing even more farmland. Losing it fast — at three acres a minute.
About the author: John Piotti is the president and CEO of American Farmland Trust.