Trust in AFT
American Farmland Trust works to keep agricultural lands growing
By Daniel A. Shaw
Photograph: Don Tanaka
If you care about where your food comes or simply enjoy gazing out the car window at farms or ranchland, you might want to wish a happy birthday to an essential conservation group: the American Farmland Trust.
Started by the late Peggy Rockefeller and a handful of likeminded conservationists and farmers to resist urban sprawl and save farmland in New York’s Hudson River Valley, AFT turned 30 this year. Now based in Washington, DC, it has grown over the last three decades into a vital, full-fledged organization working across the country and on Capitol Hill to ensure that agriculture in this country remains an integral part of the nation’s economy yet does it in an environmentally sound—and even beneficial—fashion.
As a proud member of AFT’s board of directors, I feel a keen need to spread the word about the organization’s work, much of which has flown under the radar for far too long. AFT has three core missions: protecting working lands; working to make farming and ranching more environmentally sensitive; and promoting the growing, marketing and distribution of local foods as a means of building community and supporting sustainable agriculture.
As the only conservation group focused on agriculture, AFT functions as a critical, respected bridge between farmers and ranchers and the environmental community—a relationship not exactly built on mutual trust. AFT has protected hundreds of thousands of acres of working lands, largely through its pioneering use of conservation easements on agricultural lands, but perhaps its biggest achievement has been developing the ability and trustworthiness to bring diverse interests to the table in the name of farmland protection and stewardship.
AFT routinely partners with other national environmental groups, including the Trust for Public Land, Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy, as well as with local land trusts and agriculture organizations and government officials, to reach its goals. As such, it has had an impact that vastly outweighs its low profile—particularly when it comes to influencing the massive federal Farm Bill, where AFT has had big success in expanding conservation programs.
“We play a unique role in the conservation world,” explained AFT’s president, Jon Scholl. “We’re focused on farmland conservation and stewardship, and we try to push a progressive agenda there; but we also work to keep agriculture economically viable for those farmers and ranchers engaged in it.”
Scholl, a fourth-generation farmer of corn and soybeans from Illinois, came to AFT in 2008 from the Environmental Protection Agency, where he was the liaison to the agricultural community. Under his leadership, AFT has become a leading proponent of exploring the use of farmland for alternative energy. Scholl has installed wind turbines on his family farm.
“The energy/agriculture relationship is one of the most exciting things I’ve seen in agriculture in my lifetime,” he says. “That agriculture is being viewed as part of the solution to the energy challenges facing this country is just great—and personally it will help keep our fourth generation farm for the fifth and sixth generations! Our primary objective on our farm is still producing commodities, but the wind turbines add an element of economic stability.”
AFT has done some tremendous work in Colorado over the years, including helping to save about 10,000 acres of ranchland in the spectacular upper Elk River Valley north of Steamboat Springs. Six ranching families decided to preserve that land for future generations instead of selling out to developers, and AFT brought its expertise and tools to the situation to make that happen.
More recently, AFT hosted a meeting in Denver on the effects of climate change on agriculture. Colorado is also a battleground on another persistent threat to farms and ranches: the estate tax. Currently, farmers and ranchers cannot pass down their working lands without their heirs paying huge inheritance taxes—there’s no exemption for those lands, even if the next generation wants to keep farming or ranching. It’s an especially acute problem in places like the Roaring Fork Valley, where land is so valuable. As the estate tax comes up for renewal in the next year, AFT is beginning to seriously tackle this issue with lawmakers in DC and around the country.
“We’re working very hard to make policy makers understand that failure to address this situation encourages landowners to sell out to the highest bidder—even if they want to keep farming or ranching,” says Scholl. “We look for all kinds of ways to help protect farm and ranch land, and revising the estate tax is another way.”
AFT was the first conservation group to recognize the importance of farmland as open space, as habitat and as a vital part of our national identity. Thirty years later we are in the midst of a local food movement that shows no sign of slowing, and AFT’s work has never been more vital. “No Farms No Food.” A simple message but one that AFT has been trying to hammer home for 30 years. It finally may be catching on.
For more information on the American Farmland Trust, visit www.farmland.org