2023 Session Review: Protecting Farmland in Washington
This year in Washington state policy, American Farmland Trust advocated for protecting Washington farmland with more funding, stronger land use policies for urban housing and rural solar, support for urban agriculture, and investments in climate-smart practices. Below are our key highlights and successes.
We are celebrating a fully funded Farmland Protection and Land Access (FPLA) program. Last year, it was piloted with $2 million. Within a year, the entire fund was on its way to protecting 237 acres of farmland in Jefferson, Island, and Klickitat Counties. The State Conservation Commission (SCC) requested $4 million to build on this success over the next two years. AFT partnered with Washington Association of Land Trusts to coordinate advocacy, providing a letter of support signed by over 20 land trusts and agricultural organizations across the state.
FPLA is part of a “buy-protect-sell” strategy for protecting farmland in Washington at risk of development. When farmland hits the real estate market, a land trust can quickly acquire a FarmPAI loan from the State Housing Finance Commission. The farmland is then permanently protected with FPLA by purchasing an easement to remove the development rights, which makes the land more affordable for farming. Finally, the land is sold to a next generation farmer, with priority access for beginning farmers, farmers of color, and veterans.
In addition to FPLA, the Washington Wildlife Recreation Program received a historic $120 million, which includes $12 million to protect farms and forests.
Funding for easements for protecting farmland in Washington will go a lot further when we reduce the pressure to develop rural land. Our Farms Under Threat research found that Washington lost nearly 98,000 acres of farmland to urban and low-density residential development from 2001 to 2016. We stand to lose another 192,000 more acres by 2040. We depend on this farmland to feed the growing population. In a report on land use policy solutions to protect farmland, the Washington Food Policy Forum recognized urban infill housing as a critical strategy. They recommend that cities be required to allow more housing options, including middle housing.
AFT joined a broad coalition led by Futurewise to support HB 1110 for statewide middle housing, putting the voice of farmland protection and local food systems on the record. We also supported HB 1337 to remove barriers to building accessory dwelling units in cities. After years of advocacy, both bills are now signed by the Governor.
Solar energy development has been a growing issue in Eastern Washington, with the new demand for land conflicting with agriculture and the environment. For the last year, we have participated in a Least Conflict Solar Siting process in the Columbia Plateau, led by the Washington State University Energy Program. By engaging workgroups for farmland, rangeland, conservation, and solar energy to identify areas of high priority, a mapping tool will be produced that can identify least-conflict lands for these stakeholders.
Washington can meet clean energy targets while supporting long-standing goals to preserve natural and working lands. The clean energy siting bill, HB 1216, incentivizes utility-scale solar energy in least-conflict areas in the Columbia Plateau by directing the Department of Ecology to prepare environmental impact statements in targeted areas. This approach reduces upfront costs for solar development in places not suitable for agriculture or habitat. It could also provide opportunities for mitigation if farmland is lost.
One way to reduce conflicts between solar and agriculture is to develop integrated systems where both can occur on the land, sometimes referred to as agrivoltaics. Projects need to be piloted to research and develop practices that work for both farmers and energy utilities. We are encouraged to see $10.6 million from the climate commitment account for the Department of Commerce to advance pilot projects for dual-use solar.
A small but important bill on urban agriculture saw unanimous support in both chambers. HB 1552 recognizes that, just as cities preserve parks for open space and recreation, places to grow food are an important amenity for livable communities. Urban agriculture supports access to fresh food, community education, and entry points for future farmers.
This bill was also informed by the land use report from the Food Policy Forum. It directs SCC to convene stakeholders to learn about the challenges and opportunities for urban agriculture. Those practicing, supporting, or otherwise involved in urban agriculture should stay tuned for opportunities to be engaged.
With this budget, Washington delivered the first funding from the cap-and-invest program, created by the 2021 Climate Commitment Act. The Sustainable Farms and Fields Program received $30 million to address agricultural waste and emissions reduction through climate-smart livestock management, including anaerobic digestion projects on dairy farms.
The Washington Soil Health Initiative received $582,000 to implement a science-based, voluntary program called Saving Tomorrow’s Agricultural Resources (STAR), which will provide producers tools to track soil health improvements and the ability to generate market-based incentives.
From the natural climate solutions account, two new riparian buffer grant programs have emerged this year, with SCC and the Recreation and Conservation Office each receiving an allocation of $25 million. These investments are a significant opportunity to advance priorities for salmon recovery and climate change, while also supporting farmers to stay on the land, provide ecosystem services, and feed communities.
Even with these successes to celebrate, we still have a lot of work ahead. The threats to the future of farmland continue to outpace the solutions on the ground. But as we reflect on the progress made towards protecting Washington farmland this year, we are feeling extra grateful for the food on our plates.