|Washington, D.C., June 17, 2009 —According to new statistics released by American Farmland Trust’s Farmland Information Center, the efforts of state governments to protect agricultural land through purchase of agricultural conservation easement (PACE) programs slowed during 2008, probably due to record high land values. PACE programs pay farmers and ranchers to permanently protect their land with conservation easements that limit future development and keep the farmland available for agriculture.
The survey of PACE programs in 23 states found that states spent more than $336 million to protect
121,373 acres of farm and ranch land in 2008. Although states spent 14 percent more than they did in 2007, they protected 28 percent fewer acres, and acquired 33 percent fewer easements.
Next year’s news may be worse. Although land values have dropped, the economic downturn and state budget shortfalls have impacted funding for farmland protection, even in states with typically well-funded programs. The Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Program will not accept new applications in fiscal year 2010 because the program’s funding sources—a dedicated portion of the real estate transfer tax and the agricultural transfer tax—are generating less revenue. Instead, funds will be used to address the backlog from fiscal year 2009. The Pennsylvania Agricultural Conservation Easement Purchase Program set a lower threshold than last year for state easement purchase funds because they realized a loss on their investments and received less revenue than anticipated from the state’s Environmental Stewardship Fund. At the same time, the program faces staff cuts to help offset the state’s $3.2 billion shortfall.
The Obama administration is also grappling with budget deficits and included less in next year’s federal budget for the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program than was authorized in the 2008 Farm Bill. “It’s short-sighted,” says Bob Wagner, AFT’s Senior Director of Farmland Protection Programs. “Investing in farmland protection makes good economic sense. PACE programs enable farmers to tap into their land equity so that they can improve and expand their businesses.”
AFT studies show that farmers selling their development rights use the proceeds to implement conservation practices, retire debt and buy equipment and supplies. “These dollars tend to stay in the community,” Wagner adds. And investments in critical agricultural infrastructure—especially productive farmland—are key to growing local food systems. In addition, nearly two-thirds of responding state level programs reported that they include environmental factors in their selection criteria. “As far as economic stimulus expenditures go, PACE programs may represent the best all-around value for taxpayers,” Wagner observes.
As of January 2009, 22 states have active state-level PACE programs. An additional five states—Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii and Texas—have authorized PACE but have not set up programs. Dozens of local communities and private land trusts supplement state programs or, where none exist, independently protect agricultural land. Thousands of communities nationwide benefit from protected farms and ranches that generate economic activity and provide food, fiber, fuel and environmental benefits while maintaining local character.
States with older PACE programs have achieved important milestones. Five states—Colorado, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Vermont—have each protected more than 125,000 acres of farmland. And states like Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey have made headway by protecting a significant percentage of their agricultural land base.
Seven states—Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania— have invested more than $100 million each in farmland protection with New Jersey and Pennsylvania having spent $758 million and $676 million, respectively.
AFT’s Farmland Information Center conducts an annual survey of state and local PACE programs throughout the country. The results are available online at www.farmlandinfo.org.