America is beautiful due in no small part to the biodiversity and wonder of its working lands. Conserving these working lands to produce food, support wildlife, and combat climate change can be done simultaneously and to the benefit of all.
The Biden Administration’s recent "America the Beautiful" report embraced the goal of conserving 30 percent of our land and water by 2030—and to include working lands in that goal. This effort is being portrayed by some as a government land grab. That’s inaccurate. The Administration has made it clear that any effort to conserve private land will be voluntary. But this inaccurate view is more than misleading—it is obscuring the powerful benefits that 30x30 could bring to American agriculture.
Forty-four percent of the land in the United States is stewarded by farmers and ranchers. What these private landowners know is that a multitude of species rely on these lands for habitat and foraging. A farm is not just a farm, a ranch not just a ranch. Natural areas are interspersed on working lands. Woodlands and wetlands are part of the farmscape. Grasslands provide grazing for domesticated animals, but also homes for wildlife. Importantly, these landscapes provide buffers between natural lands and developed areas, and connectivity corridors permitting both daily and seasonal movements of animals within home ranges to facilitate dispersal and genetic interchange between populations. In short, they’re a boon for biodiversity.
American farmers and ranchers believe in conservation. Yet there is a limit to what even the most committed land steward can do without outside funding—and many federal conservation programs are oversubscribed. The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) is a case in point, with program funds only able to serve a small fraction of overall need. There is no question that more conservation funding would translate into more farmers and ranchers who would be willing to sell an easement or go further with various farming practices that enhance wildlife habitat and build soil health.
By putting a spotlight on the power of both permanent land protection and enhanced conservation practices, 30x30 could generate more funding for voluntary incentive-based programs that would really help America’s farmers and ranchers.
The Biden Administration’s commitment to 30x30 presents an opportunity for agriculture, not a threat. The threat that does exist comes from ill-planned residential and commercial development. That’s what we should be shouting about. Paving over, fragmenting, or converting our farmland to other uses forever extinguishes that land’s ability to support our farmers and ranchers and all they do—from putting food on America’s tables, to providing a home and travel-ways for wildlife, and to drawing down carbon to fight climate change.
American Farmland Trust’s “Farms Under Threat” research showed between 2001 and 2016 alone, 11 million acres of the nation’s irreplicable agricultural land was lost or fragmented, equal to all the land in the U.S. used to produce fruits, vegetables, and nuts in 2017. Roughly 4.4 million of these acres were “Nationally Significant” – our best land for food and crop production. Our best soils for sequestering carbon. Our most resilient land. Land on which we all must rely.
Permanent protection is our best hope for stemming this loss. Yet less than one percent of agricultural land is so protected.
New funding to protect working lands under permanent agricultural conservation easements is urgently needed. Easements provide for the farmer along with the greater good. They can often bring an infusion of cash to further their operations, such as investment in new practices, or a tax deduction to protect income. With an easement in place, the land is priced at agricultural value, making it more affordable for the next generation, be that the current landowner’s children or one of the many of ambitious new producers looking to take the first and most challenging step into farming, acquiring land. Beyond this, easements keep land out of the hands of developers. We won’t have a next generation on the land if we don’t keep the land in agriculture. No Farms. No Food. No Future.
Yet the permanent land protection offered through an agricultural conservation easement is only one tool available—and we need more than that to get the job done. American Farmland Trust has proposed that we simultaneously support our land stewards and the land itself through two intertwined strategies.
The first strategy is to significantly increase the amount of funding for ACEP, making it possible for more of the landowners who wish to sell an easement to do so. The ambitious but achievable goal is to permanently protect five percent of working lands by the end of the decade.
The second strategy is to enhance targeted conservation practices on at least 25 percent of additional working lands by 2030. This would involve investing more in proven federal programs like Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), as well as pursuing innovative new efforts, such as a national cover crop initiative and a proposed program that would combine technical and financial assistance to advance both conservation and farm viability.
These two strategies interweave in multiple ways. For instance, permanent land protection often encourages landowners to consider conservation practices that yield long term benefits. At the same time, producers who go the extra mile with conservation practices are taking a long-term view that often creates an openness to permanent protection.
Such investments will improve productivity, while simultaneously enhancing our environment. Why wouldn’t we want to create such opportunities for interested farmers and ranchers?
That’s what 30x30 could do for working lands—helping us keep America both beautiful and bountiful.
For more agriculture news, go to www.Agri-Pulse.com.
John Piotti has worked at the forefront of sustainable agriculture since the early 1990s, first in his home state of Maine, and now nationally. In 2016, he became the president of American Farmland Trust, bringing new energy to this storied organization that helped create the conservation agriculture movement.