PhD, Vice President of Programs, American Farmland Trust
“The way of the small farmer is disappearing,” I recall my gentleman farmer dad telling me when I was just a teenager in the late 70s. “It’s all about the large landowners and developers who have the money to invest in the equipment.” His were prophetic words, indeed, at a time when the USDA was preaching ag mechanization and reducing farm subsidies. But at the same time, a visionary organization was being formed to apply land conservation practices to agriculture in order to protect the small farmlands that sustain us. That organization was American Farmland Trust (AFT).
After decades of work in helping conserve our nation’s farmlands, AFT is engaging next-gen farmers and landowners in ways to redefine the modern farming experience while fostering healthier food sources for us all. I chatted recently with Beth Sauerhaft, PhD, AFT’s vice president of programs, to learn more about the work of this Responsible Brand.
Stewarding the Land
Teresa Coles, Riggs Partners: Tell me a little about how American Farmland Trust got started, and the need it met in the agricultural market at that time.
Beth Sauerhaft, American Farmland Trust (AFT): AFT was founded by female farmer and philanthropist, Peggy Rockefeller, in 1980 as a brain trust to explore the intersection of agriculture and the environment. There were agriculture and environmental organizations, but there was no real overlap. Then the National Agricultural Lands Study came out in the late 70s, which brought out the serious threat posed by farmland loss. In forming AFT and putting an emphasis on protecting farmland, Peggy actually helped create the conservation agriculture movement.
TC: I understand part of its original work was focused on organizing conservation easements for farmland. How would you quantify the impact of that work, all these years later?
BS: You’re right. AFT met with early, big success in helping codify ag conservation in the 1981 U.S. Farm Bill. That was truly powerful and spurred a big push to create farmland protection programs around the country and many ag land trusts. It was really quite progressive at the time. That movement has protected in perpetuity more than 6.5 million acres of farmland and ranchland using agricultural conservation easements.
TC: Beyond protecting farmland through conservation easements, what are other major needs the organization has identified and addressed?
BS: AFT has taken a three-pronged approach to saving the land: protecting farmland with tools like conservation easements, promoting environmentally sound farming practices, and keeping farmers on the land through educational initiatives surrounding succession planning and land access and transfer. None of our efforts do us any good if the next generation isn’t able to access, use and farm the land to continue production moving forward.
TC: Since the mid-80s, AFT – through a number of policy initiatives – has helped farmers and ranchers access more than $117 billion in funding for conservation projects. Can you describe the impact of this kind of funding?
BS: As the demand for food grows – experts predict an increased need in food production of 60 percent by 2050 – so too will our need for farmland. And we need these lands to restore our planet, to sequester carbon and to provide other environmental services like water storage and filtration. So, really, the impact of $117 billion in conservation funding is immeasurable. Nothing less than our future is at stake.
Stewarding the Farmers
TC: Placing conservation easements on farmland helps preserve the land needed to grow food. And sustainable farming practices help farmers grow better food for us. How do more sustainable farming practices deliver bottom-line benefit to the farmers?
BS: We actually prefer the term “regenerative practices.” Regenerative agriculture is a holistic approach to farming and the food system that results in improved ecological, social and economic conditions. Farming practices focus on soil health and biology, reducing inputs and boosting farmer income. Regenerative agriculture embraces a social framework, one that supports the economic, social and cultural health of those who own, manage and work on farms. When farmers thrive, ecosystems are protected, and communities are better off.
TC: How do you address the generation of farmers who may be attached to older, less sustainable farming practices? Why should they evolve their practices?
BS: The irony is that some practices we promote are as old as the hills; we’ve just gotten away from implementing them. So, it’s about getting back to those and showing farmers that there are multiple reasons and benefits that will aid their farm, their community and society by doing these things. I think much of it is figuring out what motivates the farmer and presenting the right management technique, approach and rationale for implementing these practices.
TC: I understand you have a program especially designed to help women just like me — second- or third-generation farmland owners who don’t actively farm. Tell me the biggest reasons women need to get involved in this program.
BS: It’s a generalization, of course, but men have historically been the primary farmers. But women live longer and in many cases both bring and/or inherit the land. Many of them want to continue farm production on their own or rent it to farmers and ranchers, but don’t know where to start. Our Women for the Land program is about building peer-to-peer networks for women to learn about ag programs and get involved in these systems. The data shows that women tend to be interested in conservation and, when engaged, they tend to really act. This is a great opportunity for women farmers to recognize their role in the value chain.
Stewarding us All
TC: What is the current rate of loss among U.S. farmlands? What’s at stake if we don’t protect these farms?
BS: Based on the daily average measured from 2001 to 2016, we know that every day 2,000 acres of agricultural land are paved over, fragmented or converted to uses that jeopardize farming. What’s at stake? Nothing short of this nation’s food security. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the underlying weakness in our food system and made us realize we can’t take farmers for granted. If development consumes farmland, these farms will disappear and communities will suffer more. Climate change is also at stake. Farmland that is converted to other uses emits 58-70 percent more greenhouse gases than if it had remained in farming, and it certainly can’t sequester carbon once it has been paved over. Add to this all the other ecosystem services we lose when we pave over farmland – ground water recharge, filtration, aesthetically pleasing scenery, wildlife habitat and more.
TC: What can those of us who are not farmers do to help reverse the trend of farmland loss?
BS: Visit farmers markets, roadside vegetable stands, farms, ranches. Go to a state fair and talk to the teen who’s showing an animal with 4H or FFA. Ask farmers questions, even the silly ones, and just get to know those in your area. You can become an AFT member and help with the funding needed to protect farmlands. And we can all let our elected officials know that we’re committed to protecting farmland, and we support the policies that will enable ag land protection.
TC: This coming year, AFT will celebrate 40 years of service. What do you believe have been the organization’s most significant achievements?
BS: Helping to set up land trusts and promote the notion of protecting farmlands have been critical. We’ve had significant impact at the policy level, too. For example, AFT is directly responsible for the monies that the federal Farm Bill provides for protecting farmland. And making the connection between retiring farmers and ranchers and the next generation wanting to come in is so important.
TC: Clearly, there is significant, important work still on the horizon.
BS: Absolutely, there is no issue more critical today than climate change. It already impacts every aspect of our lives and will continue to do so, not just here in the U.S. but globally. Anything we can continue doing as an organization to mitigate agricultural contribution to climate change and help farmers become more resilient to its impacts is paramount. We have an outsized opportunity to make a long-term difference.