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Washington State Creates New Office of Farmland Preservation

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The Washington state legislature has passed, and Washington state Governor Christine Gregoire signed, a new Office of Farmland Preservation in Washington—Senate Bill 5108.

This bill was a long time coming. With AFT’s help, Washington created a state program in 2002 authorizing the Washington State Conservation Commission to purchase agricultural conservation easements. But AFT was unable to secure funding to support this authority, so it languished. Between 2003 and 2005, AFT undertook a statewide effort to educate and build support for farmland protection within mainstream commercial agriculture in Washington. Then, in 2005, this hard work paid off. With critically important support from AFT and Washington Farm Bureau, the state made farmland protection a part of the highly respected Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program (WWRP)—a program that acquires lands important to the environment and to recreation. This year, with a highly successful effort, the WWRP program was funded at $100 million for the 2007-09 biennium which, given the percentage allowed for farmland easement purchases, will result in $9 million to spend on protecting agriculture over the next two years. 

This is good, but still not sufficient to truly address the scope of the problem we face in Washington.

So when the governor and the legislature offered up SB 5108, farmland protection advocates were lined up and ready. There were misgivings among some fiscal conservatives, but strong support showed up at each of the public hearings on this legislation—support that came from a very broad coalition of farm groups, agriculture, community activists, environmentalists and managers of current county programs struggling to succeed.  

The new office will have a staff of two, a two-year budget of $500,000, will be housed in the State Conservation Commission (which strongly and effectively supported it) and overseen by a “Farmland Preservation Task Force” made up of farmers, legislators and representatives of the state’s counties, the governor’s office, State Conservation Commission and conservation districts, the Department of Agriculture, NRCS and the Department of Community Trade and Economic Development. 

It will focus, for the next two years, on the following tasks:

  • Developing credible, broadly supported recommendations for the use of agricultural easements;
  • Identifying the factors that need to be corrected to reverse declines in agriculture;
  • Developing programs and incentives to help keep farms viable and retain land in agriculture;
  • Developing a process for grants to local communities for farmland protection;
  • Providing technical assistance to local communities in developing their own farmland programs; and,
  • Analysis for implementation of a farm transition program, including:
    • Help with business plans;
    • Help in facilitating transfers of properties so they stay in farming;
    • Research and assistance on marketing, financial and agricultural transition issues;
    • Begin creation of a transition program to help move land between generations;
  • Serve as a clearinghouse for incentives programs to help make them more accessible to landowners and to the implementation community.

All this is obviously a tall order for two people, in two years, with a limited budget. But this legislation is also the first and best real opportunity yet to lay the foundation for a substantial farmland protection program in the state of Washington.  There was a lot of interest in the legislature culminating from several years of AFT work to create a favorable political climate for action. It was very clear that the governor and legislators passed this bill with a serious underlying commitment to funding a program next year or the year after if this new office does a good job of showing the way.

AFT takes great pride in this new Office of Farmland Preservation, and we plan to work closely with its new staff to draw on this favorable climate of support to see some serious help for Washington’s farmers over the next few years.

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American Farmland Trust