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Protecting farmland: AFT focused on conservation, farmers

WASHINGTON — American Farmland Trust is focused on the land, conservation practices for the land and stewards of the land.

“American Farmland Trust was founded in 1980 to bring together the environmental and agricultural world,” said John Piotti, president and CEO of American Farmland Trust.

“Forty years ago there were very few agricultural land trusts protecting land with ag conservation easements,” Piotti said during a webinar organized by the Chicago Farmers. “Less than 10,000 acres of American agricultural land had been permanently protected.”

At that time, Piotti said, there was no tax benefit for donating an easement and no federal funding for farmland protection.

“AFT changed all that with the Farmland Protection Policy Act,” he said.

The key crisis today is climate change, Piotti said.

“Agriculture is a major cause of the climate problem with 25% of the worldwide emissions and 10% in the U.S.,” he said.

“On the flipside, agriculture has a chance to reduce our impact on the environment by reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere by capturing the carbon and putting it back in the soil where a lot of it came from,” Piotti said.

“Regenerative agriculture involves using better farming practices in a manner that will restore soil health and by so doing pull carbon from the atmosphere and get it back into the soil,” he said.

Farmers know that improving soil health reduces runoff when it rains and holds water so the land is better at tolerating periods of drought.

“With that comes greater productivity, and when you can grow more with less chemical fertilizers and other added inputs, it’s not only better for the environment, but it saves the farmer money,” Piotti said.

AFT has been working on conservation practices for several decades. However, Piotti said, progressive farmers have been doing it longer.

“What’s different today is the world outside of farming is recognizing the importance,” he said.

The beauty of farming, Piotti said, is that it can do two things simultaneously.

“Farming grows our food, and it can also provide a range of environmental services, including carbon capture, water recharge, wildlife habitat and open space,” he said. “There is really nothing else quite like farming.”

Losing farmland to other uses has significant impacts.

“We don’t only lose the opportunity of land to provide critical environmental benefits, we also put more pressure on the remaining land,” Piotti said. “Every time we lose an acre, we have to figure out a way the remaining acres can effectively grow all the food we need.”

This would not be much of an issue if farmland wasn’t going to other uses at such a rapid pace.

“Every day, 2,000 acres of high quality, irreplaceable farmland is paved over, fragmented or converted to new uses that jeopardize farming,” Piotti said.

FarmProductivity

Piotti expects continued productivity increases in farming.

“But we can’t maximize regenerative agriculture in the way we must and also maximize food production, we can’t do both together,” he said. “We’re only going to realize the results we want and need from regenerative agriculture if we have enough land to practice the best practices on that land.”

The question is how much farmland is needed to produce food with regenerative agricultural practices.

“If there was an adequate buffer along every river and stream so there were not pollutants flowing into the water, think about the amount of land that would be taken out of agriculture production,” Piotti said. “What if we did adequate crop rotations and cover crops everywhere and if we returned marginal land back to native prairie, woodland or wetlands?”

Research from American Farmland Trust shows in applying two regenerative practices to the cropland that could reduce the equivalent of 87% of the greenhouse gas emissions, Piotti said.

“If we went further or applied to other agricultural land, we could become not only carbon neutral, but actually have a carbon sink and that’s when we need agriculture to do because other segments of our society will always produce emissions,” he said.

It is important to determine how much farmland is needed not only for food production, but also to provide environmental services.

“Long before we run out of the land we need to provide us with food, we’re going to run out of the land that we’ll need to help heal our planet,” Piotti said.

Focusing on the farmers is also vital for the future.

“We’re facing challenges as more and more farmers are getting to the age they’re leaving the profession,” Piotti said. “We need new people, but there are huge barriers, including the cost of land and the fact that farming is a complicated business that requires a broad array of skills.”

In the United States, AFT estimates 40% of the farmland will be in transition in the next 15 years due to the age of farmland owners.

“AFT helps to get farmers on the land by putting agricultural easements on land, which is one way to lower the cost of that land for incoming farmers,” Piotti said.

“We need to do more of this kind of work because the only way we’re going to have enough land and we’re managing it using the best practices is if we have enough new farmers,” he said.

Piotti stressed there are reasons for hope.

“We have the tools and we know how to protect farmland as we’ve gone from 10,000 acres permanently protected to 6.5 million acres and 400 million acres have been taken out of harms way through zoning and various strategies,” Piotti said.

“We’re posed for changes in public policy and markets,” he said. “We’re getting to the point where farmers will be compensated not just for the food they raise, but for the environmental services they provide.”

For more information about American Farmland Trust, call 202-331-7300 or go to www.farmland.org.

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