How AFT is Doubling Down to Address the Emerging Challenges to Keep Farms Viable - American Farmland Trust

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For forty years AFT has worked to keep farms viable, we’re doubling down to address the emerging challenges.

Sustainable Grazing Project: Joey Gray and Jeremy Engh at AFT cover crop grazing plot with Dr. Allen Williams who we hired to help consult on improving soil health through regenerative production practices.

Agriculture is a rewarding, yet risky business. In this nation’s short history, farmers and ranchers have experienced booms and busts, revolutions and crises, periods of high and low prices. Farming and ranching families ride the ups and downs, for the love of the work, the land, the animals, and their community. It is a hard life, but they enjoy it and all to the benefit of we the people. But, they do it for more than just the love – they also need to make a living, and achieve a quality of life worthy of their commitment and work.

These past few years the challenges from severe weather, market changes and disruptions, and other factors make farming dramatically more difficult – particularly for small and mid-sized, as well as underserved producers.

AFT’s mission – to save the land that sustains us by protecting farmland, helping to implement environmentally sound practices and keeping farmers on the land – has never been more urgent or relevant.

As AFT elevates new leaders to help farmers overcome the new and evolving challenges and support them on their path to becoming better, more productive producers and businesspeople, we look across AFT for some of the examples of the work we do in the name of viable farms.

“Whole Farm” protection tools utilized by AFT’s Land Protection team provide a means to address the affordability and accessibility of farmland, housing and infrastructure for farmers. Farmland can be prohibitively expensive, especially new and young farmers, yet critical to starting and growing an operation and remaining viable. AFT has protected valuable farms and ranchland for decades using agricultural conservation easements. In recent years, our teams have worked to develop new innovations to traditional agricultural easements that keep land more affordable, accessible and viable for future generations of farmers. In 2021 AFT protected the Clark Farm, a productive farm on Boston’s suburban edge where development pressure is high, with an agricultural easement. The easement supports the active agricultural use of the land while setting terms for affordable transfers of the property to future farmers and removes rights to develop the property for residential or other non-farm uses. The easement also requires the existing residence on the property to be occupied by a qualified farmer. The impact of these easement terms has resulted in the long-term affordability of a whole farm (land, house, agricultural structures), despite its location in an area with some of the nation’s highest land values. AFT has since used similar tools, built from the Clark Farm model, to protect 11 additional farms and more than 2,000 acres across the United States.

Quantifying the Economic and Environmental Benefits of Soil Health case study work shows how farmers who have successfully implemented soil health practices benefit financially. The cost benefit analyses helps take the guess work out of implementing soil health practices for farmers who want to try them. The Ifft family in Yorkshire, Illinois, improved its Return on Investment by 123% implementing cover crops and no-till in their corn and soybean operation. The Ifft’s story and the detailed case study with budgets gives other farmers the confidence to move forward and thus the opportunity to improve the viability of their operations.

Bringing the next generation of farmers onto the land and helping them succeed is the focus of AFT’s Farms for a New Generation team. The U.S. is witnessing the historic inter-generational transfer of millions of acres of farm and ranch land. As senior farmers retire, who will farm and manage the associated business and land assets is one of agriculture’s most pressing questions. Fewer and fewer farm transitions occur within families. And while a new, more diverse group of farmers are eagerly seeking opportunities to produce our food, fuel and fiber, they face significant barriers to finding suitable, affordable land. Whether entering within or outside of a farm family, the next generation of farmers must have the skills and knowledge to access capital and navigate financial decisions when perusing access to land that will enable them to launch and run a successful agricultural business. Building off of AFT’s successful model in New York that combines centralized resources for farmers and capacity building for technical service providers, AFT is laying the groundwork for farm viability through regional and national projects that build the expertise and ability of our staff and other service providers to support farmland transfer while expanding the tools available through the Farmland Information Center to help farmers and landowners navigate the complex process of land access and transfer.

AFT’s  Sustainable Grazing Projectrooted within the Mid-Atlantic Region, has holistically provided technical and financial assistance to a diversified set of livestock producers over the past four years. This work has leveraged the power of peer-to-peer networks to disseminate the wealth of knowledge gained through producer led, on farm research. An example of this type of research can be found in AFT’s current cover crop grazing initiative in Culpeper, VA where Jeremy Engh of Lakota Ranch has grazed his Red-Devon cattle on cover crops planted by Joey Gray, who has been an instrumental crop producer and collaborator for this work. This partnership and research showcase the benefits of livestock incorporation into traditional cropping systems and shows promise to also improve land access for new and beginning grazers. Modifying grazing and livestock production systems have not only impacted soil health, water quality and ecosystem diversity, but have also helped producers adopt low-cost production models improving their likeliness of sustained profitability. Farm viability has further improved for producers engaged in the project through enhanced access to resources which advance financial and production record keeping, business planning and increase the value of livestock produced through adopting product certifications and direct marketing opportunities.

This is just a glimpse into the greater body of AFT’s work that helps keep farms viable and ensures farmers thrive despite growing uncertainty and risk. We hope you will stay tuned as we showcase more projects from across the organization and celebrate the milestones achieved as we elevate farm viability to new heights at AFT.


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About the Author
Nathan W. L'Etoile

National Farm Viability Managing Director

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