I'm a staff writer for the Justmeans Sustainable Food blog, which means I have an excuse to spend a bit of time each week researching topics that I'm really passionate about, like local food systems, community garden projects, food security, and farm to institution efforts. Offline, I coordinate a community garden project on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington....
Saving Farmland for Sustainable Agriculture
One of the biggest hurdles to young farmers who want to get started in sustainable agriculture is finding good, affordable land. Farmland is pretty scarce these days and most often bought up by developers and turned into neighborhoods and strip malls. But a new USDA incentive program may help change that, and keep more land for farming, with a particular emphasis on making sure that farmland be used for organic and sustainable agriculture.
A few weeks ago, the USDA passed an interim final rule for the Conservation Reserve Program's Transition Incentive Program (TIP.) The implementation of this program, which was written into the 2008 Farm Bill, will provide retiring farmers and ranchers with some money if they pass their farmland on to beginning farmers (as long as the new farmers are not family members.) The purpose of the incentive is partly to deter retiring farmers from selling out to real estate developers who can usually offer more money than a couple of start-up farmers can. But it's also a way to assist new farmers who are looking for a piece of productive farmland, particularly those who are young or socially disadvantaged and unable to afford good land.
Sounds like a good deal, right? Of course there are a few other rules that participating farmers must abide by. For example, the retiring farmers must be under contract to sell to a new farmer in a long term lease agreement. The new farmer must agree to farm and manage the land in adherence to sustainable and organic agricultural methods for crop production and livestock grazing. Saving farmland for both a new generation of farmers AND earmarking it specifically for sustainable agriculture sounds like a REALLY good deal to me.
What is also very encouraging about TIP is that it is a national program, backing up the long-time efforts of lots of farmland trusts and other small state or private organizations that work to link farmers up with good, cheap land and keep working farmland out of the grasp of development. In addition, the fact that there there is $25 million allocated for the incentive program, and that money is going into the pockets of farmers, recognizing, in some sense, the value of the work that they do. It's programs like CRP and TIP that give me hope that the USDA will do more to promote and support sustainable agriculture and small-scale farms, and acknowledge the important role of sustainable, organic agriculture in America's food systems.