According to new statistics released by American Farmland Trust's Farmland Information Center, local farmland protection efforts slowed in 2008, likely due to record high land values. The statistics were generated from a nationwide survey of 77 independent "purchase of agricultural conservation easement" (PACE) programs in 19 states. PACE programs pay farmers and ranchers to permanently protect their land with conservation easements that limit future development and keep farmland available for agriculture.
The survey found that communities spent more than $277 million to protect 15,492 acres of farm and ranch land in 2008. Although locals spent 77 percent more than they did in 2007, they protected 67 percent fewer acres and acquired 46 percent fewer easements.
Next year's news may be worse. Although land values have decreased, the economic downturn and local budget shortfalls have impacted funding for farmland protection. According to respondents, available program funds are down 18 percent for fiscal year 2009, and state and federal matching funds for agricultural easement acquisitions may be harder to come by.
"It's a missed opportunity-communities won't be able to take advantage of the relatively low land values," says Bob Wagner, AFT's Senior Director of Farmland Protection Programs. "Investing in farmland protection makes good economic sense. PACE programs enable farmers to tap into their land equity so they can improve and expand their businesses." AFT studies show that farmers selling their development rights use the proceeds to implement conservation practices, retire debt and buy equipment and supplies. "These dollars tend to stay in the community," Wagner adds.
And investments in critical agricultural infrastructure-especially productive farmland-are key to growing local and regional food systems. "As far as economic stimulus expenditures go, PACE programs may represent the best all-around value for taxpayers," Wagner observes.
As of January 2009, at least 77 independent local programs operate in 19 states. These programs undertake projects on their own. In some cases, there is no state-level partner, but in other instances communities choose to invest in farms that fall outside the scope-project criteria and/or available funds-of the state program. "Independent PACE program activity is a powerful testament to the importance of farms and farmland to local communities," says Wagner.
American Farmland Trust's Farmland Information Center conducts an annual survey of state and local PACE programs throughout the country. State figures were released in mid-June. The results are available online at: www.farmlandinfo.org.