We need fertile farmland to grow the healthy food we need to survive. But did you know:
- Farms and ranches support local economies and create jobs.
- Farm and ranch lands typically generate more revenue for local governments than they demand in services.
- Farmers manage nearly half of the land in the lower 48 states. Well-managed agricultural land provides food and cover for wildlife, helps control flooding, absorbs and filters storm water. Well-managed farmland also traps carbon in the soil, benefitting the environment.
According to the 2010 National Resources Inventory, more than 24 million acres of agricultural land—an area larger than the states of Indiana and Rhode Island combined—were developed between 1982 and 2010. This includes cropland, pastureland, rangeland, and land enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program.
The 2012 Census of Agriculture reports that our nation’s 2,109,303 farms sit on 914,527,657 acres, accounting for 40.5 percent of our total land area. Farms can include cropland, permanent pasture and range land, woodland, plus land in farmsteads and buildings.
Prime farmland soils have the best physical and chemical properties for most kinds of agriculture, requiring less water, fertilizers and pesticides. They are the easiest soils to keep healthy, farm profitably, and grow the widest variety of crops with the least environmental impact. Prime farmland soils are the most resilient to extreme weather, such as drought and heavy rainfall. They are also at the most risk of being developed.
An agricultural conservation easement (ACE) is one of the most effective ways to protect land for farming.
An agricultural conservation easement (ACE) is a deed restriction landowners voluntarily place on their property to keep productive land available for farming. Landowners grant ACEs to a public agency or qualified conservation organization. ACEs can be tailored to each property and to the needs and conservation goals of each landowner. ACEs typically permit agricultural activities and structures (e.g., barns and fences) but limit uses that are inconsistent with commercial agriculture (e.g., non-farm dwellings).
Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement (PACE) programs compensate landowners for placing an agricultural conservation easement (ACE) on their land to keep it available for agriculture. PACE programs offer a financially competitive alternative to selling farmland for development. State and local governments and private conservation organizations implement PACE programs. PACE programs rely on public funding, including matching funds from the federal Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. PACE programs often consider soil quality, threat of development and future agricultural viability when prioritizing farms for protection.
|Status of State PACE Programs as of January 2014|
Land trusts are private conservation organizations that protect natural resources by acquiring or helping other organizations acquire land or conservation easements. Some land trusts protect farm and ranch land for agriculture. Most land trusts accept donations of land or easements but some use private and public funds to compensate landowners. AFT helped start several agricultural land trusts nationwide.
Local governments can play an important role in farmland protection. Planning for agriculture envisions a future for agriculture in a given place over a specified time period. The planning process typically results in a comprehensive document that establishes goals and recommends programs and policies for protecting farmland and supporting local agriculture. Plans for agriculture propose strategies to steer growth away from active agricultural areas, reduce regulatory barriers for agriculture, encourage appropriate agricultural infrastructure development, encourage new opportunities for producers and address sustainable use of agricultural resources.
Every state has at least one policy or program that helps protect farmland, including:
- Agricultural district programs allow farmers to form special areas where commercial agriculture is encouraged and protected. In exchange for enrollment, farmers receive a package of benefits which varies from state to state.
- Differential assessment laws direct local governments to assess agricultural land at its value for agriculture, instead of its full fair market value, which is generally higher.
- Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement (PACE) programs compensate landowners for placing an agricultural conservation easement on their land to keep it available for agriculture.
- Right to Farm laws strengthen the legal position of farmers when neighbors sue them for private nuisance and can help protect farmers from anti-nuisance ordinances and unreasonable controls on farming operations.
- Transfer of development rights (TDR) programs protect farmland by shifting development from agricultural areas to areas planned for growth. When the development rights are transferred from a piece of property, the land is typically restricted with a permanent agricultural conservation easement. When someone in a more developed area buys the development rights from agricultural land they may be allowed to build at a higher density than typically permitted in the area.
AFT estimates that agricultural landowners working in partnership with state and local Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement programs and land trusts have protected nearly 5 million acres of farm and ranch land for agriculture. Nearly all is protected by agricultural conservation easements.