Local Food a Growing Trend for Land Trusts
When a land trust in Grayslake, Illinois, made a strategic decision in 2005 to include farmland in its list of property types to preserve, it joined scores of traditional "woods and waters" trusts across the U.S. which are increasingly preserving agricultural lands and building local food systems.
While it made sense strategically, since much of the county’s remaining forested and open land has already been conserved, it was also right on mission for Conserve Lake County (CLC). As they got into it, the CLC leadership realized that they didn’t want to convert purchased farms to natural uses, though, but rather to keep them in farming.
Yet the conventional corn and soybean farming practiced widely in the region was not on-mission, given the known impacts of those practices. “That sent us searching for a different kind of farming more in keeping with our mission of improving land and water health,” explained Steve Barg, CLC’s executive director. Because their preserved agricultural lands are farmed more sustainably, they were then pulled into the nascent food system conversation in the county and are now leading efforts to develop its local food economy.
While land trusts that specialize in farmland, like American Farmland Trust, have been around a long time, this trend of conventional land trusts wading into food systems work is much newer, and it’s growing. Statistics shared by the Land Trust Alliance (LTA), found that of 912 member trusts surveyed in 2010, 22 percent reported that farm and ranch preservation was “very important,” and 39 percent said it was “extremely important.” Well over half of the LTA members, then, are strongly invested in this work (for more stats, see American Farmland Trust’s 2012 survey of land trusts that specifically work to preserve farms and ranches).
When asked about the interest, Rob Aldrich, director of communications for the LTA, said he’s been watching it trend steadily upward since the early 2000s, and sees land trusts getting involved all along the spectrum of activities within the new food movement. One of his favorite examples is Massachusetts Audubon, “… a land conservation organization dedicated to saving bird habitat, which is now doing community gardening in some of their sanctuaries. Why? Because that’s what their communities need, and they want to use their resources to address community needs that also blend with their mission.”
And Mass Audubon isn’t alone: the biggest and oldest land trust in the state, The Trustees of Reservations, employs an Agriculture Program Director to manage its ag-strategy and farm-holdings. The LTA’s Aldrich plans a special feature on the whole topic of land trusts in the food system for the summer issue of his organization’s member magazine, Saving Land.
Back in Illinois, the most visible example of CLC’s efforts, beside Prairie Crossing (a 669-acre Chicago subdivision that devotes 100 acres to food production: see “Farming the ‘burbs”) and the fact that around 25 percent of its portfolio is now agricultural land, is the nascent Casey Farm Center for Land Health, a 34-acre farm CLC also now owns. It will use part of the farmhouse for educational purposes and lease the rest to a young couple for raising chickens and produce. A renovation of the 140 year-old dairy barn to make it friendly for food processing is just being finished.
In a similar vein on the East End of Long Island, NY, Peconic Land Trust (PLT) has been in the local food game since 1990 when it was gifted land perfect for a CSA—Community Supported Agriculture. One of the oldest CSAs in the country (and also having the distinction of employing Scott Chaskey as its official “Farmer/Poet”—it really says that on his business card, and his poems are great), PLT’s President John Halsey said that their decision to keep the land in farming hinged on stewardship. “What better way to steward farmland than by operating a farm that engages the community?”
Beside the venerable CSA, called Quail Hill Farm, ninety acres of this land is part of PLT’s new Farms for the Future initiative, an incubator for new growers who can lease the land to “… get their feet on the ground before finding more permanent locations to farm out here.” At the end of their lease, PLT plans to aid the farmers in finding land elsewhere that they can acquire themselves, which is key in Hamptons zip codes.
But that question of whether farmers like them can actually find land, conserved or otherwise, that they can finance remains a big question. Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust in western Massachusetts is one organization that’s working to make conserved farmland affordable to new and old entrants alike with an increasingly popular model.
In addition to more traditional practices (it’s conserved two dozen farms over the past 25+ years), Mount Grace recently launched a new effort that protects the land by way of a community land trust (CLT) structure. This model is one of shared ownership, where the land trust buys the land and provides a 99-year inheritable lease to the farmer, who owns the house and buildings and in turn grants the trust a permanent Affordability Restriction, ensuring that when the buildings are sold to the next farmer (and it must be to a farmer), the price tag will be affordable.
Their Campaign for Affordable Farms is just shy of the fundraising goal for its first project: buying the 100+ acres of Red Fire Farm in Montague, whose current owners will remain on the land and operate their successful 1,400-member/year-round CSA, while shedding unsustainable debt.
All of Mount Grace’s potential farm conservation projects are assessed for their full farm affordability potential, reports Executive Director Leigh Youngblood. She’s a booster of the CLT system both for its economic sense, since a regular conservation easement simply does not guaranteed affordability, but also for the good it does in the community, she says (and speaking of, the National Young Farmers Coalition just surveyed 225 land trusts across the U.S. to find out what they’re doing on the affordability question, from CLTs to language enhancements in traditional conservation easements favorable to agriculture, and plans to publish the results soon).
So although a CLT is a departure from traditional land trust work and comes with organizational capacity questions, Youngblood declared, “We love it, Red Fire is a strong partner, and we were ready for the challenge.” And beside the great mission-match that the campaign yields, there were also direct benefits to Mount Grace in 2012, she reports: “We got 100 new donors at the end of the year. That’s the biggest increase in one month we’ve ever had.”
Which should be music to many land trusts’ ears. CLTs are also likely to have been discussed by a new short course just offered by Bard College (NY) aimed at land conservation professionals, Private Land Conservation: A Primer, and The Role of Agriculture. This offering at a college is yet another sign that this trend is getting big.
When asked to share advice with land trusts that are interested in getting into the farmland preservation game, here’s what my sources suggested:
- Lease, don’t own, according to Mount Grace’s Youngblood: “I often see land trusts acquire farms and then operate them. I personally don’t want to be operating a farm. We’re good at conserving land. Owning a farm and running it with your own staff is harder than leasing it.” She also highly recommends Land for Good, which provides farmland access, farm transfer planning, land planning, and farm use agreement information in the Northeast.
- Peconic Land Trust’s Halsey agrees: “Owning the land doesn’t mean you need to hire the farmer as we did, although we’ve gained a lot from that.” He also added that a land trust has a unique position and should take advantage of that with farmland it owns: “Get more involved with active management of farmland: encourage new forms of agriculture and best management practices and look at different models.”
- Find your door-opener, says CLC’s Steve Barg: “There’s one farmer in our community who’s been a game-changer for us, a fourth generation farmer and conservationist (who bucks the usual corn and soybeans plan and instead grows an interesting four to five grain rotation on his land). Because he’s a conventional farmer, he’s been a real door-opener for us in the farming community.”
That’s all good advice, and one hopes that the estimated 1,660+ land trusts across all 50 U.S. states will follow the lead of the 558 Land Trust Alliance member trusts that report being invested in this work. The country needs to greatly increase the number of farmers and the diversity of its farms if it hopes to feed itself well into the future. The good news is that its reliable fleet of land trusts is well-positioned to help by creating many new local food solutions.
Visit EcoWatch’s SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE page for more related news on this topic.
This post originally appeared on Grist.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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