Northampton, Mass., February 14, 2013— According to new data from American Farmland Trust’s Farmland Information Center, at least 5 million acres of U.S. farm and ranch land have been permanently protected by state and local purchase of agricultural conservation easement (PACE) programs and private land trusts. PACE programs are publicly funded programs that buy conservation easements from willing landowners to keep land available for agriculture. Land trusts are private conservation organizations that protect natural resources by acquiring land and conservation easements.
Between 1982 and 2007, the U.S. lost 23 million acres of farm and ranch land—an area the size of Indiana. Permanent protection ensures that, in the face of development, there will be a supply of productive land for future generations.
American Farmland Trust’s (AFT) annual survey of PACE programs found that as of January 2012, state and local governments had invested more than $5 billion to permanently protect 2.7 million acres of farm and ranch land. In its first ever nationwide survey of private conservation organizations, AFT found that land trusts had protected 3 million acres of farm and ranch land, roughly 750,000 acres of which were protected in partnership with PACE programs.
“We now have a more complete picture of how much farm and ranch land has been protected forever,” said Julia Freedgood, American Farmland Trust’s managing director of farmland protection. “Five million acres is a good start, but we have a lot more work to do.”
The results of the surveys highlight issues that create barriers for agricultural landowners and impede efforts to protect farm and ranch land. Only 27 states have active state-level PACE programs and only 4 percent of land trusts actively protect farm and ranch land.
“The most active land trusts are located in states with public farmland protection programs, leaving land in important agricultural regions—like the Corn Belt—at risk,” Freedgood explained. “Expanding the number of PACE programs and land trusts committed to saving agricultural land for agriculture is essential for future farm and food security.
In addition, chronic cuts in state and local funds for farmland protection are having a dampening effect. In 2011, states spent 7 percent less on farmland protection than in 2010, and they reported that they will have $23 million less to work with in the upcoming year. The cuts will also impact land trusts, which rely on public programs at the federal, state and local levels to help fund land and easement purchases. Without a new Farm Bill in place, it is uncertain to what extent the federal Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program—a federal program that provides matching funds for easement purchases on agricultural land—will be able to bridge the gaps.
“AFT will continue to fight for funding to save farm and ranch land,” said Freedgood. “And we’ll work to build capacity in underserved areas—providing technical assistance and resources to support the people in the public and private sectors working to save farm and ranch land.”
Nationwide, thousands of communities benefit from protected farms and ranches for local production of food, fiber and environmental benefits as well as value-added enterprises with revenues that ripple through local economies. Beyond their direct and indirect economic impacts, protected farms maintain open space, community heritage and rural character.
AFT’s Farmland Information Center conducts an annual survey of PACE programs and in 2012 conducted its first survey of land trusts. Survey results are available at www.farmlandinfo.org.