Growing Opportunity in the Next Farm Bill
Right now, the future of agriculture is at a critical crossroads as Congress writes a Farm Bill that will shape our nation’s farm and food policy for the next five years. Building upon its on-the-ground programmatic work and partnerships nationwide, American Farmland Trust (AFT) has spent years listening to farmers, ranchers, and many other stakeholders to develop a holistic policy agenda for this precise moment. These policies will protect more farmland, help farmers and ranchers adopt and maintain conservation practices, and expand opportunities for a diverse new generation of producers.
We believe everyone has a stake in building a resilient farm and food system. And as Congress enters challenging negotiations and makes difficult trade-offs, now is the best time to take action to help make a Farm Bill for the future.
Helping a New, Diverse Generation Access Land
The largest barrier that many aspiring farmers and ranchers face is accessing affordable farmland. Since 2019, the average farm real estate value has gone up nearly 30 percent. This is even more drastic in some parts of the country – in the Northern Plains, for example, land values have shot up nearly 50 percent in just four years.
With agricultural land at record prices—and steep competition from investors, established farmers, and solar and real estate developers—many young, beginning, and historically marginalized producers struggle to access land. At the same time, many senior farmers and farmland owners have no identified successors. With so many farmers and ranchers nearing retirement, our food system depends upon a new generation taking the reins.
A new bipartisan, bicameral “marker” bill (meaning the bill was introduced with the hope that it will be included in the Farm Bill, rather than being passed by itself) would tackle this challenge head-on. The Land Access, Security, and Opportunities Act would permanently establish and fund a program similar to one piloted by USDA this year specifically dedicated to supporting land access. If included in the Farm Bill, it would expand funding for community-based projects to help young, beginning, and BIPOC producers access land, capital, and markets, with services including succession planning, down payment support, business and financial planning, and heirs’ property issues.
Protecting our Best Farm and Ranch Land
Over 2,000 acres of productive agricultural land are converted or fragmented by development every single day. In the first 15 years of the 21st century alone, over 11 million acres of agricultural land were lost or threatened by development. If nothing is done, AFT research projects the U.S. to lose an additional 18.4 million acres by 2040. This research does not even account for the rapid expansion of U.S. solar development, much of which is projected to occur on productive farmland.
The federal government has a key role in ensuring that this loss of land does not become a reality. The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) is the only federal program focused on permanently protecting agricultural land. However, significant barriers hinder its ability to assist landowners who seek to protect their land for future generations. A partnership of national organizations, land trusts, and state protection of agricultural conservation easement programs has put together recommendations to improve ACEP for both landowners and partners.
These recommendations would also help improve land access. Agricultural conservation easements can make land more affordable for current and aspiring producers. In addition, the ACEP recommendations include changes to enable more land trusts to buy land, place it under permanent protection, and target its sale (so-called “Buy-Protect-Sell” projects) to new producers.
Creating an Office of Small Farms
Although all farms must contend with issues such as extreme weather, inflation, and supply chain disruptions, the reality is that not all farms are equally equipped to deal with these challenges. Small farms have fewer resources to draw upon than their larger neighbors. The pandemic starkly illustrated how essential these farms are to local and regional food access and our rural economies, food security, and community resilience. In fact, small acreage farms—those with fewer than 180 acres—represent 70 percent of all farms in the U.S.
Despite their importance to our rural communities, small-acreage farms face unique challenges, and many struggle to access USDA programs that are too often designed to be one-size-fits-all. For instance, farm relief programs have not always taken into account the fact that many small farms receive premium prices—rather than traditional commodity market prices—for selling local or producing value-added or organic products. Such farms also do not have the benefit of distributing costs or losses over many acres.
It’s clear that small-scale producers need a new approach. Another marker bill, the bicameral Office of Small Farms Establishment Act, would help level the playing field by creating a new office within USDA tasked with ensuring that these farms can access the full suite of essential USDA programs, services, and support. Such a step in the next Farm Bill could be transformational.
Enabling Farmers to Help Each Other Adopt Conservation Practices
Finally, more must be done to support producers in building resilience to a changing climate. Conservation practices like cover crops, conservation tillage, and rotational grazing help shield farmers from the impacts of extreme weather events and are critical to building the soil and maintaining profitability. They also help society by improving water quality and increasing carbon sequestration.
While the Farm Bill programs administered by USDA play an essential role in providing financial and technical support to help producers adopt these practices, they also leave gaps and do not always result in practices being continued beyond the initial contract period. There is no better or more trusted source of information to support the successful, long-term adoption of new conservation practices than other farmers.
Farmer-to-farmer information exchange and mentoring already happens naturally – both informally along the fence line or at the coffee shop and formally at field days and demonstration sites. However, the sustained information exchange that is necessary for transformative change is rare and hard to find. The bipartisan Farmer to Farmer Education Act would enable more farmers to benefit from the experience, innovation, and leadership of other producers by increasing the visibility and capacity of existing farmer-led education networks and helping to establish new ones.
Such networks are especially important to reaching and serving historically marginalized communities, some of whom are hesitant to work directly with the federal government given past experiences. Ensuring that farmers can support other farmers is all the more critical as USDA continues to award increased conservation funding from the Inflation Reduction Act.
The Time to Act is NOW
If included in the next Farm Bill, these policies would expand opportunities, increase resilience, and help enable a new, diverse generation of farmers and ranchers to succeed. As Congress writes a new Farm Bill in a challenging political and budgetary environment, we need your voice. You could be the difference between whether these important policies are included or are left on the cutting room floor.
Now is the time to address the most pressing issues facing farmers, ranchers, and rural communities today. Please join us in making your voice heard!