By the late 1970s, Peggy Rockefeller, a passionate farmer and active philanthropist, had become frustrated that none of the major environmental or agricultural organizations were effectively applying the emerging tools of land conservation to agriculture. She pulled together a brain trust to explore what could be done.
The group was informed by the National Agricultural Lands Study. This first-of-its-kind analysis of how and why America was losing farmland had recently been completed by USDA and the President’s Council on Environmental Quality.
The group recognized the serious threat posed by farmland loss and concluded that our nation needed a new kind of organization, one that stood at the intersection of agriculture and the environment. It would take a unique and highly innovative organization to operate effectively in this previously unexplored realm. But there was clearly a void that needed to be filled. They formally chartered AFT in 1980.
AFT initially focused on popularizing the use of a powerful new tool—agricultural conservation easements—as a way to keep developers off the nation’s best farmland. Our first Congressional success was passage of the 1981 Farmland Protection Policy Act, a subtitle of the 1981 Farm Bill. It codified the notion and use of agricultural conservation easements. With this in hand, AFT began a flurry of outreach and activity, which over the years ultimately led to the creation of 29 state farmland protection programs, over 70 local and regional programs, and many agricultural land trusts. This created a whole new community of entities doing the work that had previously been limited to the Marin Agricultural Land Trust and a few other farm-oriented land trusts.
Beyond AFT’s efforts to create new entities that would protect farmland and hold easements, AFT was itself organized as an agricultural land trust. At one point, AFT held over 200 easements spanning 25 states. Then as new land trusts came to be, AFT often assigned its easements to those new entities. (AFT continues to acquire easements in targeted regions, and currently holds over 100 easements.)
But from the beginning, AFT realized that ensuring the nation would have enough land to grow our food demanded multiple strategies, not just easements. Some of these strategies would ultimately require AFT to create or promote whole new tools, like our “cost of community service studies,” which made the financial case for communities to support farms locally. And from the beginning, there was a growing appreciation of the need to focus on better farming practices. After all, what good would it do to permanently protect a farm with an easement if all the topsoil eroded away in a generation?
In 1982, noted soil conservationist Norm Berg retired as Chief of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and began a period of substantive volunteer service to AFT–a relationship that lasted for the next 26 years. His contributions, coupled with the expertise of AFT’s growing staff, propelled AFT into a role as the leading designer of many innovative conservation programs.