New England field notes: Farmland protection and a new focus on climate

It’s been a busy few months in American Farmland Trust’s New England office, and I’d like to share a brief update on our work in the region.

AFT is implementing new programming in the region and advancing policy solutions that help keep farmland conservation at the forefront of our work. I’d like to highlight two major projects we are undertaking.

Climate and Agriculture

For some time, AFT has led the charge to identify how farmers and farmland can help combat climate change, and we have recently begun to bring this work into New England. This work in the region started with a request from a funder – to help them figure out a way to balance farmland protection and solar development, two issues of importance to them. The work grew when five of New England’s six governors chose to sign onto the US Climate Alliance, and AFT was chosen as one of just six “Impact Partners” to the US Climate Alliance. This critical work requires constant attention and AFT is adapting to the growing needs in this area by bringing on a staff person specifically dedicated to Climate and Agriculture to work exclusively in the New England region. We are thrilled to expand our team in this unique way and you can read more about the open position here.

Our Smart Solar Siting work utilizes our relationships with environmental, agricultural, and government entities across New England to gather the various perspectives on the issue from across multiple stakeholder groups, catalog the diverse (and sometimes divergent) policies and programs in each of the states, and then to build a guide with best management practices to promoting solar build out that doesn’t just avoid adversely impacting farmland, but where possible actually helps farms and farmland. It’s a time consuming and worthwhile project that is bringing solar and agricultural advocates together as we collectively work to address this issue.

As part of our work for the US Climate Alliance, we have begun to embark on a similar effort to catalog and make recommendations relative to programs and activities that states are doing or can do that increase stored soil carbon.  Because the majority of states in New England are Climate Alliance members, AFT is working on several synergistic projects in the region to assure that agriculture in our region plays its part.  Most of these other projects are in the proposal stage to various funders, we expect good results, but we will need to be patient until we know more.  If we are successful, it means we will be engaged on many fronts – helping to create a healthy soils plan for Massachusetts, doing carbon inventories and modeling of soil carbon on farmland across the region, and helping to craft policies for the region that bring farmers and farmland to the table around climate.

We have joined three active working groups devoted to climate and agriculture in the region.  We recently joined with the Maine Climate Table which has been active for many years trying to address climate change in Maine. We are taking part in an ongoing climate conversation in Massachusetts led by the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative to create a coordinated effort to align programs and projects around climate.  Finally, we are working to help an effort led by Tufts University and the French Consulate in Boston to begin a New England-wide dialogue around 4p1000, an international effort to increase carbon stocks on working lands.

While our goals for engaging on climate in the region are simple, they are not easy. We must show that agriculture can be a part of the solution to combating and mitigating climate change. When we do so, we must then work to identify ways to direct increased funding to farmland protection efforts (keeping in mind that protecting farmland is as much about improving and conserving the quality of our farmland as it is about protecting the quantity of farmland) and to increase farm viability through the conversation – find ways to bring farmers to the table and compensate them for what they are being asked to do in our collective fight!

Farms Under Threat, New England

As part of the New England Food Vision, AFT continues to lead efforts on ensuring we have the appropriate amount of farmland available to meet the goals of the vision. We are doing this through several angles – building the capacity of our regions land trusts to effectively protect working farmland; helping to identify the regions most productive, versatile, and resilient farmland so that we can better inform policy and personalized on-the-ground protection efforts; and by raising the profile of the issue throughout the region.

To build capacity, we act as a convener and supporter for land trusts as well as state and federal agency officials in the region, showcasing where we (New England farmland protection practitioners) face common challenges, and how we are solving them in our own communities. We have played a key role in educating the region on changes from the most recent farm bill to some of the crucial protection tools we use every day – the Agricultural Lands Easement Program, Regional Conservation Partnerships Program, and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. We have set the bar high in New England, and continue to strive for more!

New this winter, we have begun ramping up for program expansion in the Northern New England states, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. We currently have several proposals out to regional funders to help us deliver more local programming to improve the skills and knowledge of those engaged in farmland protection. We know that continued learning and training for a new generation of conservation leaders is essential to achieve long-term impact on the issues we all care about.

I’m thrilled to announce that we recently hired our own internal GIS staff to do more modeling and mapping on a regional and local level, specifically focusing on a better modeling of low-density residential development (something never done before) and mapping the potential of many of our forested lands to produce foods.

As AFT prepares to release the second phase of Farms Under Threat mapping and state level analyses, we have partnered with Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation to host a conference in the fall of 2019 to share what we have learned and bring much needed attention to the issue of farmland conservation. It is wonderful to see a national leader in health care embrace the food system AND the topic of farmland protection! We’re delighted to be partnering with Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation to truly move the dial on saving the land that sustains us.