A conversation about protecting land, farmers and ranchers

2009-11-14T23:30:00Z A conversation about protecting land, farmers and ranchersBy KEILA SZPALLER of the Missoulian missoulian.com
November 14, 2009 11:30 pm  • 

Bob Wagner is with the American Farmland Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based organization with a mission to help farmers and ranchers protect their land. Wagner, senior director of farmland protection programs, was in Missoula last week speaking at the University of Montana. The environmental studies program and the Coalition of Food and Agriculture Coalition hosted the presentation. Wagner stopped by the Missoulian during his visit, and the following is adapted from a conversation with him.


1. How much land does Missoula need to protect for agriculture? Is there a formula that tells us how much we should save given factors like our climate, geography and population?

That’s been asked of me now a couple times since I’ve been in Missoula. That’s the $64,000 question. I think it’s very difficult to really determine what that absolute number is of the amount of acres of farms or ranchland you need. On the one hand, agriculture is constantly changing. So what agriculture looked like 50 years ago is very different than what it looks like today and different than it will look like 50 years from now. It’s probably not realistic to protect every acre of good quality farmland that’s available now. But to put an end number is not a good way to go.

It should be part of a comprehensive plan that’s not part of only agriculture, but part of growth and development. I think it’s also really important that in the process of addressing the loss of farm and ranchland, the community looks at how important the land is financially for its scenic qualities, wildlife habitats, and other benefits and amenities. The scenic qualities are very important to your tourism, I would gather.


2. What are the best tools to preserve land? How can it be done without disenfranchising the landowner?

This little toolbox, the Farmland Protection Toolbox, addresses the needs of the current generation of farmers and their need for equity. Two ideas are the purchase of conservation easements and transfer of development rights.

They’re sort of related to each other in many respects. Agricultural conservation easements voluntarily allow farmers or ranchers to get equity out of their land and still continue to own the farm. They get the equity out of the land that’s driven up in value for non-agricultural use. They actually are made whole. There is this sort of one-to-one relationship between what the land is worth for non-agricultural use and it’s agricultural value. So they continue to own the land, but they receive funds equal to the value of the land for its development potential. And then they can sell or transfer the farm with the restriction, with the easement in place. So this is the way for them to both realize equity in their land now, which they can use for retirement, and also to continue to own the farm and perhaps sell it or transfer it to a family member.


3. Which communities have preserved agricultural land with the most success?

Probably the most successful program of transfer of development rights is in Montgomery County, Md., and also  Burlington, N.J. Some people might wonder how Missoula can take lessons from such urban areas, but they have done a very good job of managing a program that not only directs growth and development to the most efficient areas for infrastructure, but at the same time protects viable agriculture.


4. The federal government has traditionally subsidized large agricultural productions. Is there similar or growing support for local farms?

This last farm bill actually set aside a lot more funding for community food systems and local food initiatives. There is actually a fair amount of money there. I wouldn’t say there’s been a trending away from traditional agriculture, but more an adding onto the farm bill for the important local foods and farmers markets and community food systems. The USDA Web site and the deputy secretary’s pages have a lot of information on new programs for marketing grants, value-added processing grants, and organic transition.


5. A point that shouldn’t be missed on the topic?

Since good quality farmland is indeed a finite, non-renewable resource, we can’t let what the current situation in agriculture or current farming dictate our decisions for the future. There are many options and opportunities out there that we aren’t even thinking about. If we somehow destroy that land or the land is destroyed through development or poorly planned development, then we’ve completely lost the resource. It’s not like we’re just going to re-create that land somewhere else.

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