“The current class of climate activists could learn a lesson or two from how AFT has approached its work over the years.”
William K. Reilly, former EPA administrator, former president of the World Wildlife Fund, and former AFT board chair, in the foreword to “No Farms, No Food: Uniting Farmers and Environmentalists to Transform American Agriculture.”
Spurred by post-war sprawl that consumed farmland at an alarming rate, and recognizing that farmers and environmentalists seldom recognized their overlapping interests, American Farmland Trust was founded to put agriculture on a different track. AFT pioneered use of various land conservation tools, previously used to preserve wilderness or create parks, to now protect working farmland, and AFT brought together two divergent communities—farmers and environmentalists—to catalyze transformational public policy that has dramatically reduced soil erosion and improved water quality and soil health. This in turn has laid the groundwork for farming to play its most important environmental role yet, helping combat climate change.
AFT is no longer the only national organization that sees the need to save farmland to not just grow our food but to provide key ecological services, or that sees the power of regenerative farming practices to help heal a degraded planet, or that sees how farmers and ranchers are essential to wise stewardship of the land. But AFT remains the leading organization built around this broad holistic mindset—an approach that continues to foster innovation and impact.
The history of this unique organization—and the conservation agricultural movement it launched—is at once fascinating, instructive, and hopeful.
1977-1980: Envisioning a Different Path Forward
As public concern over environmental degradation grew during the 1960s and 70s, many environmental groups began to view agriculture as a dirty industry that needed to be actively regulated. They didn’t see farmers as caring stewards of the land, but as polluters. And farmers saw environmentalists as litigating zealots who wanted to regulate them out of business.
In short, farmers and environmentalists often viewed the other as the enemy.
But not everyone fell into one camp or the other. Among the exceptions was Peggy Rockefeller. Though married to financial magnate David Rockefeller, she was herself a bona fide cattle farmer. Peggy Rockefeller was also an ardent environmentalist. She assembled a small group of like-minded persons who rejected the very idea that there had to be two camps. They believed that agriculture and the environment were inseparable, two sides of the same coin. Yet they were experienced enough to know that bridging divides was never easy—and that the best approach would be to organize around a real-world problem.
By the 1970s it had become harder and harder to ignore the sprawling development—the strip malls and tract homes—that had begun consuming the countryside after World War II. Alarmed by the loss of farmland, the President’s Council on Environmental Quality in 1977 teamed up with USDA to conduct a multi-year National Agricultural Lands Study to assess this potential threat of dwindling farmland to American prosperity and food security.
Here was the needed organizing issue. Farmland loss was a common ground issue that might unite farmers and environmentalists as a first step in bridging a wider divide. To this end, Rockefeller and her cohort recognized the potential of applying to working farmland the kind of land conservation tools that had been used to preserve wilderness or create parks, to both retain farmland and support farmers.
Rockefeller at the time served on the board of The Nature Conservancy, or TNC, an organization that today works closely with farmers, but didn’t back then. She asked TNC to take on this new role. But TNC said NO. It would have been a major change in direction for the organization. Other environmental groups were then approached, and they said NO. Several farm groups, when approached, also said NO. Afterall, these organizations had defined themselves as being against the other side. None was comfortable taking on a bridge-building role.
Only a new organization could play this role.
1980-1985: Launching a Movement
Chartered in August 1980, AFT had an outsized impact from almost day one—due in part to the quality of people involved, but also to how AFT was engaged in work that that no other group was doing.
In addition to Peggy Rockefeller, the initial group included Fred Winthrop, who as commissioner of agriculture in Massachusetts had pioneered programming to save that state’s farm economy and farmland; Ralph Grossi, a dairy farmer from California who had been the force behind the recent creation of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, or MALT, the nation’s first land trust devoted to protecting farmland; Bill Reilly, future EPA administrator and conservation icon who combined experience in land-use planning with knowledge of farming; Father A.J. McKnight, a civil rights leader who early on saw the connection between farms, food, and social justice; Bill Dietel, a gifted educator and foundation executive who was instrumental in securing early funding and putting AFT on the right organizational course; and Pat Noonan, future MacArthur Genius Award recipient and founder of the Conservation Fund who served as TNC president when Rockefeller asked that group to consider a new role. Though Noonan did not support that move, he grasped the need for a new organization.
Winthrop was AFT’s first board chair. Noonan, Reilly, and Dietel all later served in that position.
Doug Wheeler, then president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, came on as AFT’s first president, building an impressive staff. This included Robert Gray, the former congressional aide who led the National Agricultural Lands Study, and then Norm Berg, the highly regarded former chief of USDA’s Soil Conservation Service. Thus, early on, AFT boasted the national experts on both farmland loss and conservation practices.
The National Agricultural Land Study was issued in January 1981, just days before Ronald Reagan took office. Among its results, the NALS revealed that America was losing 3 million acres of farmland a year—a truly alarming rate that AFT turned into a call to action. Soon thereafter, AFT scored a major political victory when the Farmland Protection Policy Act was incorporated into the 1981 Farm Bill, codifying the notion and use of agricultural conservation easements. With this in hand, AFT went to work. AFT was then the only agricultural land trust in the nation other than MALT, which focused on one county in California; as such, AFT was soon working with farmers and ranchers on easement projects across the country. AFT also began supporting other groups that wanted to engage in this work—both new land trusts and governmental entities. Ultimately, AFT had a direct hand in creating 27 new state farmland protection programs, over 70 local and regional programs, and many new agricultural land trusts.
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 entirely new tools, such as “cost of community service studies” that 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?
AFT’s early work advancing conservation practices were led by Norm Berg. Upon retiring from USDA, Berg accepted AFT’s offer of office space, and in so doing, began a phenomenal partnership that continued for the next 26 years. Berg’s passion for soil health was matched only by his knowledge of the subject. In 1984, he and Robert Gray wrote AFT’s highly influential report, Soil Conservation in America: What Do We Have to Lose?
Because AFT had been gaining credibility among both farmers and environmentalists around farmland protection, AFT was now in a position to combine its growing reputation as a bridge builder with its intellectual leadership on soil conservation. It organized and then led what became known as the Conservation Coalition, an unprecedented assembly of farm and environmental groups that changed the trajectory of U.S. agricultural policy.
1985 to 1996: Transforming U.S. Agricultural Policy
From its inception, AFT and the coalitions and partnerships it formed have had an outsized impact on agricultural policy. AFT played a critical role in transforming the 1985 Farm Bill with the inclusion of the conservation title. The concepts for both the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, started at AFT. Now mainstays of federal policy, these programs have helped tens of thousands of farmers and their communities address critical environmental challenges.
During this period, AFT successfully advanced the powerful idea of conservation compliance, that farmers should not receive any federal subsidies if they were not following basic conservation practices. Though initially a revolutionary concept, conservation compliance continued to be expanded through multiple farm bills, and is now considered a key tenet of U.S. agricultural and environmental policy.
AFT also helped foster essential federal programs and funding for protecting agricultural land. Since the 1970s, Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords had been working to create a federal farmland protection program, a torch later carried by another Vermonter, Senator Patrick Leahy. Years of working with AFT, including documentation of the success of state programs that AFT had helped develop, finally provided the fodder needed for creation in the 1996 Farm Bill of the Farm and Ranchland Protection Program, or FRPP, which was later incorporated into a broader Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, or ACEP. These programs became the primary federal driver of farmland protection, providing funding to match state and local programs to purchase of agricultural conservation easements.
1996 to 2008: Increasing Impact
In 1992, Dr. Ann Sorenson joined AFT to head its newly created Center for Agriculture in the Environment. Sorenson led AFT’s efforts to conduct research on how to achieve an agricultural industry in concert with our surrounding natural environment. The center also helped amplify AFT’s efforts to ensure the future farm bills helped farmers and the environment.
During this period, AFT began its groundbreaking Farming on the Edge research, the precursor to Farms Under Threat. A major report was released in 1997. It highlighted the need for more farmland protection, and spurred new investment in state programs and private land trusts. At the federal level, though FRPP was created in 1996, it wasn’t fully funded until the 2008 Farm Bill, after immense work from AFT.
Beyond shaping the landscape and future of U.S. federal policy, AFT started growing. The Farmland Information Center, the national collection of information on farmland protection and stewardship, run by AFT and NRCS, grew to become a one-stop shop brimming with resources to support people working to save agricultural land.
Running on all cylinders, AFT also expanded its work to new regions across the country, bringing its expertise to states and communities confronted with more localized issues. AFT took on countless substantive projects in regions where environmental and agricultural professionals needed to come together to save farmland and protect vital resources. For example, AFT protected critical farmland in New York’s Catskill Mountains, which in turn protected New York City’s water supply.
2008-2018: Connecting Agriculture and Climate
AFT had been advancing farming practices that build soil health for decades, primarily to reduce erosion or nutrient runoff, or to improve water retention and productivity. Carbon sequestration may not have been the primary focus of these efforts, but any farming practice that builds soil health by increasing organic matter in the soil captures atmospheric carbon.
By 2008, AFT began to intentionally focus on the connection between agriculture and climate change, in the lead up to the first big climate bill that the U.S. Congress ever undertook, the Waxman-Markey Bill. In 2009, AFT led an unprecedented effort among key agricultural players to get this forward-looking bill passed in the House. Sadly, it failed in the Senate. That action set back those in the agricultural community who saw such promise—as well as such need—for farming to help mitigate climate change.
Through 2016, AFT continued to do important work around soil health, but because of the attitudes of both the public and many funders, AFT often characterized this work primarily as ways to improve water quality, reduce use of inputs, or increase farm productivity.
But that changed in 2016. AFT’s board had recruited a new president, John Piotti, who held a fervent belief that agriculture both could and must do more to combat climate change—and that it was time for AFT to once again put climate action front and center. In 2017, AFT launched a new climate initiative, with a title designed to make clear what could happen: Farmers Combat Climate Change. The initiative had active support of board and staff, but not the level of funding needed to go big.
Two important events happened in 2018 to advance this issue nationally—and call attention to how AFT was on the right path. First, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, issued a report, which stated that as important as it is to reduce carbon emissions, the goals of the Paris Accord will never be met by those actions alone—we also need to put atmospheric carbon back in the soil. Second, with House leadership switching from Republican to Democratic, a special select committee on the climate crisis was created, and thanks to foundational work that AFT had laid with Congress, agriculture was getting play as a potential solution.
When expert testimony was sought before the special select committee the following spring, AFT offered compelling testimony showing how farming, done right, could reduce atmospheric carbon. AFT at that time shared results from CaRPE, a powerful tool developed by AFT and USDA researchers that quantifies the potential of regenerative practices to offset carbon emissions.
The focus of AFT’s work on climate is holistic. It builds upon decades of work advancing regenerative practices that build soil health. But it also articulates the critical importance of farmland protection to ensure that those benefits are retained. And finally, it squarely addresses the issue of solar development on agricultural land, through a strategy that AFT calls “smart solar.”
2018 to present: Getting to Scale
For what is now over 40 years, AFT has developed and refined the tools needed to protect farmland, improve farming practices, and support farmers. We can point to impressive outcomes, including almost 7 million acres of protected farmland, innovative federal programs that have built soil health, and hundreds of thousands of farm families who have been supported in some manner, including many next-generation farmers who have been helped to enter the field.
Yet despite these successes, so much more needs to be done. AFT’s current focus is on scaling up its work and impact. We’ve proven what works. We just need to do more of it!
Our current priorities include:
- Catalyzing the next wave of farmland protection. This builds upon our research through Farms Under Threat, which is the most comprehensive land-use study ever undertaken (a multi-year research project released in phases in 2018, 2020, 2022, and beyond). And it led to the launch in 2020 of the National Agricultural Land Network, designed to help both private land trusts and governmental programs do more.
- Accelerating adoption of regenerative practices. This ramps-up decades of AFT work advancing soil health through both advocacy and on-the ground programming, including case studies that showcase the benefits to farmers. It takes our climate work to a whole new level—aiming to make U.S. agriculture, first, carbon neutral, and ultimately, a carbon sink that can help offset emissions from other economic sectors.
- Doing more to help farmers succeed—so that they can wisely steward the land. This focuses on our farm viability work, helping existing farmers and ranchers stay in business, and helping the next generation access land and have the skills and support needed to succeed financially, while following the best practices possible. This work includes both programming and small grants to help underserved farmers, multifaceted programs provided through the Farms for the Next Generation initiative, and creative and innovative efforts within our Land Projects division that lower the cost of farmland for new farmers.