Our Beginnings

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.

In addition to Rockefeller, key players in AFT’s formation included:

  • Pat Noonan, former president of The Nature Conservancy, future recipient of a MacArthur Genius Award (1985) and future founder of the Conservation Fund.
  • Fred Winthrop, a Massachusetts farmer who, as Commissioner of Agriculture, was an innovative pioneer in farmland protection and farm viability programs.
  • Doug Wheeler, a noted conservationist who served as AFT’s first president and then ran the Sierra Club and served California as Secretary for Resources.
  • Ralph Grossi, a West Coast dairy farmer who was then forming the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, one of the first land trusts focusing on farms. (In 1985, Grossi succeeded Wheeler as AFT’s president, a position he held until 2008.)

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 MALT 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.

Federal Policy Successes

Conservation Practices

In advance of the 1985 Farm Bill, AFT brought agricultural groups and conservation groups together in what became known as the Conservation Coalition. The coalition’s work resulted in the creation of the first “Conservation Title” in the Farm Bill and one of its premier initiatives, the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP.

AFT was also behind the establishment of the Environmental Quality Improvement Program, or EQIP, in 1985. Over the years, many farmers and ranchers have relied upon EQIP for cost share. Thousands of conservation projects would never have been undertaken without this program.

Between 1985 and 2018, federal funding that helps farmers and ranchers undertake new conservation improvement projects or adopt new conversation practices have totaled over $115 billion.

Agricultural Conservation Easements

In the 1996 Farm Bill, AFT was the dominant force behind the federal Farm and Ranch Protection Program, the precursor to the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, or ACEP. From 1996 through 2018, these programs provided $1.7 billion to purchase easements from farmers and ranchers. Leveraged by an equal amount of match funding from other sources, this program alone has resulted in the permanent protection of over 1.6 million acres of farmland and ranchland.

In the most recent Farm Bill, passed in December 2018, AFT led a successful charge that increased ACEP funding by $2 billion ($200 million/year over a 10-year period).

A Long-Standing Commitment to Climate Issues

AFT also has a long history of leadership on issues where agriculture connects to climate change. Long before other organizations were thinking this way, AFT was advancing conservation practices designed to rebuild soil health. This knowledge and experience, coupled with AFT’s traditional role working with both farm groups and environmental groups, placed AFT in a key position in 2009, when the Waxman-Markey climate bill was introduced. AFT’s efforts were instrumental in getting the bill passed in the House, though sadly, it was never enacted in Senate.

Now that climate issues are once again front and center, AFT is bringing our knowledge and expertise to bear. We were the first agricultural organization invited to partner with the U.S. Climate Alliance. The Alliance is providing services to a growing number of states that have committed to advancing the goals of the Paris Climate Accord on their own, given inaction by the federal government.

Food Systems Solutions

Throughout AFT’s history, the organization has always had a comprehensive, systems-wide view of agriculture. To AFT, the land itself is directly connected to the farming practices used on that land, and to farmers and ranchers who do the work.

AFT’s broad mission and holistic approach means that we have often been involved in food system issues from many angles, beyond our role leading the conservation agriculture movement.

A few examples:

  • AFT has been drawing attention to the connection between food and farms throughout our history. Over a million copies of AFT’s iconic No Farms No FoodⓇ bumper sticker have been distributed.
  • As far back as the 1980s, AFT was holding farm-to-table dinners with notable chefs, such as Alice Walters in Berkeley and Nora Pouillon in Washington, DC.
  • AFT had a direct hand in starting farmers markets in several cities, and to this day, coordinates the national Farmers Market Celebration.
  • AFT has done extensive work helping communities to think about food systems and to plan for agriculture on the local level.
  • AFT was involved in the early years of Smart Growth America, elevating discussion about agriculture’s role in good land-use planning.
  • AFT has pushed multiple states to adopt and/or enhance current use taxation programs, which have proved essential in keeping many farms and ranches in business.
  • AFT’s researchers have issued over 200 reports on a wide range of subjects and published over 20 journal articles or book chapters.

A full description of AFT’s fascinating history is being prepared, in anticipation of our 40th anniversary in 2020. Once finalized, a link to that history will be provided here.