My five years as President of American Farmland Trust have been the most challenging and rewarding of my career. We’ve seen the worst recession since the Great Depression, two divisive Presidential elections, political gridlock on Capitol Hill and the most challenging budget scenarios imaginable in the U.S. Capitol and in state capitols across the country.
Despite this, we have also seen significant achievements on farms and ranches within the scope of our work. This year, AFT celebrated a remarkable milestone: Public programs and private land trusts have protected five million acres of agricultural land. This was accomplished through the entrepreneurial spirit of AFT’s staff, the generosity of countless donors and the vision and hard work of a dedicated Board of Directors.
This and many other successes occurred during challenging times. Within six months of my joining AFT, the recession hit. The day of my first Board meeting and budget presentation, the Dow dropped 900 points! Given this climate, we knew that we couldn’t be all things to all people, but instead must focus on the most vital issues, streamline our staff and find ways to expand our collaborations with other groups.
During the past five years, AFT has zeroed in on a mission that resonates with our donors and farmers alike: to protect farmland, to promote sound farming practices and to help keep farmers on the land.
AFT has increased its credibility as a national advocate on land conservation issues. More robust programming in the Midwest, focusing on soil health and water quality improvement, has strengthened AFT’s national impact. We have brought tangible benefits to many: from small farms in New England to lush fields of the Corn Belt, from the expanses of the Southern Plains to the bountiful fields and orchards of the Pacific Coast.
We have expanded our programs designed to link up the growing demand for locally produced food to the objective of preserving farmland. Our work now emphasizes the critical importance of protecting productive farmland, with a special emphasis on small-scale farms and farms threatened by urban development.
During this five-year period, AFT has expanded collaboration with divergent interest groups, farmers, consumers and environmentalists around a shared vision of preserving agricultural lands in order to protect natural resources and preserve the environment. This collaboration has addressed such issues as the farm bill, climate change, local land protection, and creating opportunities for new and beginning farmers. All of these allied groups share the same objectives of keeping land under cultivation and soil and nutrients on fields.
Many challenges remain, but the stage is set for AFT to grow. From the low point of the recession, AFT’s endowment has grown over 60 percent. Donations are increasing at a double-digit pace. With a new acquisition effort in place, our membership numbers have grown more than 65 percent in the last fiscal year. Our core is strong. A bright future lies ahead.
I am concluding nearly a decade in Washington, D.C., to return to my farm, family and new career challenges. I will be teaching agricultural policy as part of an experiential learning program at the University of Illinois’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences in Urbana-Champaign, Ill.
Although I will no longer officially represent AFT, I will continue to be a voice for farmers and ranchers and for the protection of an amazing land that gives us our food, heritage and much more.
The words of Philip James Jones, the founder of the seven-generation Jones Family Farms in the White Hills of Shelton, Conn., have guided my work with AFT and my vision for my next endeavor: “Take care of the land, and it will take care of you.” I return to the fertile fields of the Midwest knowing that AFT will be present for many years to protect the land that sustains us all.
Thank you to the Board that gave me this incredible opportunity, the staff with whom I’ve shared both difficulties and success, and supporters of AFT who have provided the backing to move forward. I am deeply grateful.
American Farmland Trust