American Farmland Trust Statement on Conservation and Forestry Hearing
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 1, 2023 – American Farmland Trust (AFT) applauds the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry for today’s hearing, which emphasized the essential role that voluntary conservation and forestry programs play in enabling producers to protect irreplaceable farmland and adopt practices that improve profitability, soil health, and water quality while addressing climate change. The hearing once again demonstrated why these programs remain so popular for producers and policymakers, and why they are historically oversubscribed. AFT is particularly grateful to Chair Stabenow and Ranking Member Boozman for their leadership on behalf of conservation, and for emphasizing the strong bipartisan support these programs continue to enjoy.
The hearing underscored opportunities to improve and expand upon Farm Bill Title II programs, as well as the need to make them work better for a wider range of producers. More is being asked of these programs—and of NRCS staff—than ever before as producers across the nation struggle to adapt to a changing climate, face mounting development pressures and real estate values, and fight to keep their businesses profitable. AFT believes these conservation programs can and must rise to meet the most pressing challenges of the 21st century.
It was in this spirit that AFT created its Farm Bill platform, which provides policy recommendations to protect our threatened agricultural land base, increase conservation practice adoption, and support a diverse new generation in accessing land and launching successful businesses.
The platform includes recommendations to streamline delivery of programs, further promote the adoption of conservation practices, increase focus on soil health, and expand access to these programs for small-scale, beginning, and historically underserved producers. AFT is also leading efforts to establish two new initiatives to fill critical gaps in NRCS programming. The first is to create a new Farm Bill program that leverages federal conservation dollars by providing federal matching grants to state and tribal soil health programs. This would augment existing state and tribal programs, spur the development of new ones, and encourage innovative, locally led approaches to conservation that can inform future Farm Bills. The second is to create a new technical assistance program focused on developing and strengthening farmer-led and farmer-to-farmer education networks. This would make farmer-to-farmer learning, one of the most effective ways to support producers in successful conservation practice adoption, more accessible throughout the U.S.
AFT also provides recommendations for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) to enable it to reach more landowners, speed up project completion times, and make it an even more effective tool for supporting land access. These recommendations come at a time when record land prices are putting farm ownership out of reach for so many current and aspiring producers. In addition, our finite agricultural land base is shrinking at an alarming rate. AFT’s Farms Under Threat: The State of the States report found that between 2001 and 2016, 11 million acres of farmland were paved over or converted to uses that threaten the future of agriculture. The oversubscribed Agricultural Land Easements subprogram within ACEP is popular with farmers and ranchers as a way to extract equity from their land to grow or reinvest in their farm operation, pay down debt, or transfer their business to the next generation, all while ensuring that their land remains available for agriculture in perpetuity.
Since its founding, AFT has partnered with Congress and USDA to envision, establish, and implement forward-thinking conservation programs that meet the agricultural sector’s most pressing needs. As the 2023 Farm Bill process continues, AFT looks forward to working with the Senate and House agriculture committees and conservation champions throughout Congress to advance these efforts at a critical time for America’s farmers and ranchers.