Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A Better Future from Farms

Well-managed farm and ranch land is at the heart of solutions to the most pressing issues facing the United States today. AFT is embarking on two forward-looking campaigns to help American farms protect the environment and grow local foods—leading our nation to a healthier future.

The air we breathe. The food we eat. The water we drink. The communities we live in. What could be more important? These elements form the foundation of life, and they all have something else in common. Their health depends on the health of our nation’s farms and ranches.

Private working lands account for nearly half the land in the continental United States. How we grow our food, fiber and energy on that land—and whether that land stays in agricultural production—deeply influences our environment, our health, our economy and the very fabric of our communities.

The nation and the world face a critical time, confronted by the prospect of climate change, mounting health and food safety issues, air and water pollution, and high fuel prices. But at the heart of these challenges lies a common solution. Farms and ranches are at the forefront of new efforts to combat climate change by reducing and offsetting greenhouse gas emissions. They are improving the health of Americans and their communities by being a source of nutritious local food. And they can address environmental issues while providing cost-effective ways to help clean the water and air.

To harness the potential of our nation’s farms and ranches at this pivotal time in history, American Farmland Trust (AFT) is launching two new initiatives. AFT’s Agriculture & Environment campaign and the Growing Local campaign will provide the progressive leadership and innovative solutions needed to help our farms and ranches seize this opportunity to lead the nation to a bright new future.

In the following pages—and in issues of American Farmland to come—you will learn more about how AFT’s two new initiatives will be working to support a vibrant agricultural sector that can compete in a rapidly changing global marketplace while providing high quality food, fiber, renewable energy and a clean environment.

Farms Grow Green: AFT’s Agriculture & Environment Campaign

Pennsylvania farmland

On tribal lands outside Bellingham, Washington, the Nooksack Indian Tribe has harvested fish sustainably for thousands of years. With help from an AFT-led grants program called Pioneers in Conservation, the tribe created important new habitat for dwindling stocks of Chinook salmon. At the same time, the project replaced an old levee, helping four local farmers keep their fields drier during flood season.

In southeastern Minnesota, Dave Legvold grows corn and soybeans on land that drains into the Cannon River, which then winds its way to the Mississippi River. Mindful of global warming and the need to prevent sediment from running off his land, Legvold participates in AFT’s BMP Challenge, a program that promotes conservation practices like “no-till” planting that can protect waterways and reduce greenhouse gases without a loss in farm income.

And in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York, dairy farmers plant grass filter strips and establish rotational grazing for their cows to protect reservoirs that supply drinking water to millions of downstate residents, sparing New York City the cost of a multi-billion dollar filtration plant.

From Puget Sound on the West Coast to the Hudson River Valley in the East, farmers across the country are working cooperatively to change their agricultural practices and improve the environment. “These are exactly the types of projects that AFT will advance through our new Agriculture & Environment campaign,” explains AFT’s Jimmy Daukas, the campaign’s director. “Farmers and ranchers are critical to protecting our water supply and fighting climate change. But we need to find new ways and new policies to expand their efforts—and that’s where AFT’s campaign will help.”

New Markets for Farmers: Agriculture’s Role in Improving Water Quality

Threats to clean water come from many sources: electric power, manufacturing, waste treatment emissions and storm water drainage. U.S. agriculture also contributes to water quality degradation, with an estimated 829 million acres needing improved conservation practices to prevent nutrients and pesticides from reaching waterways. At the same time, improved agricultural practices are among the most cost-effective measures for reducing water quality degradation.

The critical need for water quality improvement, paired with the great potential for cost-effective solutions from agriculture, has created a market for water quality trading. In some watersheds, industries and municipalities that discharge nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus into waterways are now purchasing nutrient credits from farmers who, in turn, adopt practices to reduce the run-off of nutrients from their fields.

In the Sugar Creek watershed in Ohio, for instance, a local cheese factory wanted to expand its operations. Clean water regulations required the company to reduce its discharge of phosphorus. Through filtration, the company succeeded in significantly reducing its phosphorus emissions, but was having difficulty achieving the small remaining reduction through a technological fix. Instead, the company paid local dairy farmers to adopt conservation practices such as no-till planting, cover crops and other techniques. The farmers reduced the remaining amount of phosphorus in the water, and the company was able to expand, which provided new jobs for the community and a stronger market for milk from local farmers.

Currently only a handful of water quality trading systems are in operation with a small number of farmers participating across the country, but the potential is huge. “Water quality trading markets have the potential to reduce nutrients in key watersheds across the United States for far less money than other remediation techniques. This is going to become more and more critical as we face an economic downturn and tight budgets,” says Daukas.

New Markets for Farmers: Agriculture’s Role in Reducing Climate Change

Pressure is intensifying on our farmland to produce ever-increasing amounts of food, fuel and fiber. The unpredictability of climate change adds a new threat. Erratic changes in temperature and rainfall may result in the spread of plant-damaging insects, weeds and diseases while increasing the severity of soil erosion, runoff and flooding.

But farms and ranches are an important part of the solution to fighting climate change. U.S. agriculture contributes a minor share of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions (approximately 7 percent) but also helps to remove carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere, storing it in plants and soil in a process known as sequestration.

Studies indicate that changes in agriculture and forestry practices could offset up to 20 percent of the nation’s total emissions of greenhouse gases, and do it relatively quickly at low cost compared to other options. In emerging carbon trading markets, farmers and ranchers are being paid for adopting practices that reduce greenhouse gases, such as grass and tree plantings, conservation tillage, and producing low-carbon renewable energy.

Vander Haak Dairy, a family farm in Lynden, Washington, became the first dairy farm in Washington to install an anaerobic manure digester in 2004. The digester converts cow manure into compost, bedding materials for livestock, liquid fertilizer, and a biogas that is used to generate electricity. In the process, the digester removes tons of methane and nitrous oxide— powerful greenhouse gasses—from the atmosphere each year.

The dairy was one of the first farms in the nation to register its carbon credits with the Chicago Climate Exchange, currently the only carbon market in the United States (in the absence of a national carbon program). In the future, however, a national climate change bill may include “cap-and-trade” tools to limit carbon emissions—which would increase the financial value of carbon credits for farmers like Vander Haak Dairy.

“Right now we are missing a significant opportunity to reduce the effects of climate change through agriculture,” Daukas says. “But that should change soon. AFT is actively working to involve farmers and agricultural leaders in the development of carbon trading markets and federal climate change legislation. Any future climate change program needs to maximize the participation of farmers and ranchers in reducing greenhouse gases.”

From Field to Fork: AFT’s Growing Local Campaign

Twenty-five years ago, California farmer Alex Weiser was struggling to make his family’s 160-acre apple orchard work. Wholesalers weren’t paying a price that allowed the family to make a profit, so Weiser was forced to unload the apples to juice producers at bankruptcy-inducing rates.

Woman picking carrotsThe family could have thrown in the towel and sold the farm to developers. But instead the Weisers decided they needed to diversify and sell their products directly to customers. Before long, customers at Los Angeles-area farmers market were snapping up—and raving about—the Weisers’ apples.

The farm’s success at a variety of southern California farmers markets drove interest from restaurant chefs who wanted its produce. That in turn brought in wholesalers who supplied those restaurants. The farmers markets, even though they represent a minority of the family’s sales now, are the key to the success of the operation.

Today the Weisers will consider producing whatever their customers are clamoring for. They are famous for their potatoes—up to a dozen varieties in a year—and their melons. “We have a 25-year-old bond with our customers,” Weiser says. “When the state had a frost one February, many of the chefs held a benefit for farmers. That’s the kind of relationship we have.”

Those types of connections—between consumers who appreciate the value of local food and the farmers and farmland that grow it—will be forged through a new campaign from AFT called “Growing Local.”

“Growing Local is really about making the connection between local farms, local food and the farmland that they depend on,” says AFT’s Julia Freedgood, director of the new campaign. “We’re at a ‘tipping point’ of public demand for local food, which will help AFT harness support for local farms and farmland protection from the consumers who appreciate the opportunity to buy fresh and local food.”

Although selling locally is not a reality for all farmers, especially for those in very rural areas where population centers are few and far between, it is helping farmers like Weiser stay profitable in a challenging global marketplace. Consumers are eager for a new way of eating: farmers markets surged 150 percent from 1994 to 2006 in the United States, and the number of “community supported agriculture” (CSA) farms tripled in the past five years.

“There’s a lot of energy in the country right now about getting back to your own community, and investing in the resources in your own community,” Freedgood explains. “From AFT’s standpoint, that resource is well-managed farmland and all the great things it provides to communities—fresh local food and economic opportunities and also clean water and air and even renewable energy.”

Outside Buffalo, New York, a group of farmers who formed their own cooperative—Eden Valley Growers—to sell vegetables to local consumers have a motto: “Homegrown is homeland security. Support locally grown produce.” As the farmers understand well, homeland security is just one reason of many to support the growing trend of locally produced foods—and it’s a good one.

As noted author Michael Pollan aptly pointed out in a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, “…the health of a nation’s food system is a critical issue of national security.” Pollan challenged Americans to prioritize the importance of preserving farmland in the same way our policies have come to “recognize the supreme ecological value of wetlands.”

For communities across the country, “growing local” is important for many reasons. One is improved food quality and security—we do not have much control over imported foods, for example. Local food from local farms provides more variety and in the case of produce, freshness, which improves taste and shelf life. Because local produce is handled less, it can be picked ripe and does not have to stand up to the demands of long distance shipping. And in an era of ever-increasing energy costs, it will become harder and more costly for our communities to depend on food from far away.

“No farms, no food. That’s a message people get,” Freedgood says of AFT’s popular slogan. “The stakes have never been higher. If you don’t have local farms and farmland, you don’t have local food. First we have to raise public awareness of the importance of our agricultural resources and then turn that awareness into action so we can be food secure, energy independent and sustain healthy communities in the future.”

Across the country, AFT is working hard to protect the farmland that is the lifeblood of local agriculture. The Growing Local campaign will work to ensure that local farms thrive and agricultural land stays available for future generations of farmers. Throughout New York, for instance, AFT has been working with farmers like Eden Valley Growers on community-oriented plans that identify critical local farming resources—from the land to food and farming infrastructure—and develop strategies to protect them. Such strategies include farm friendly planning and zoning, public education about the importance of local farms and food, and the protection of working lands with conservation easements.

In California, AFT recently released a report on the San Francisco “foodshed”: the farmland within 100 miles of the Golden Gate Bridge that produces 20 billion tons of food, including more than 80 different agricultural products. The study found that there is enormous potential for the city to feed itself from local farms, but there are significant challenges to making that a reality, which AFT along with city and agricultural leaders are now working to address.

And in New Jersey’s Burlington County—a strong farming area in the shadows of Philadelphia—AFT is working with the Office of Farmland Preservation to craft a series of model ordinances that support local food production from the county’s farms, which are threatened by development. AFT also made recommendations on how to improve access to local food by food stamp recipients who want to shop at the county’s farmers market.

(For more information on the San Francisco foodshed study, the Burlington County project, and recent Growing Local activities in Connecticut and New York, see pages 4, 5 and 6.)

These are just a few of the projects that have launched AFT’s Growing Local campaign, which Freedgood says is critical at this time in history. “It’s never been more important to save our farms. I really do believe we’ve got to do this now,” she says. “We can’t continue to squander our agricultural resources. Our communities, and our world, depends on them.”