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....
What Can You Do?: Strategies to Save Farmland for Sustainable Agriculture
When it comes to sustainable agriculture (or any type of agriculture for that matter,) land is pretty darn important. Access to land, especially affordable land, is one of the biggest obstacles that young and beginning farmers face when trying to start a viable farm. And land is more than just any old plot in any old place; more than just some space. Good land for sustainable agriculture is fertile land, healthy land, and land that is accessible for the necessary infrastructure. Unfortunately, much of the very best farmland has been eaten up by things other than farms, like suburbs, shopping centers, highways, other forms of sprawl, and industrial farms. And although the disappearance of farmland goes hand in hand a whole host of environmental and other issues, we shouldn't lose heart just yet. The creativity, ingenuity, and persistence of committed farmers and farm advocates make for some very promising solutions to reclaiming land for sustainable agriculture.
While the local food and sustainable agriculture movement has prompted more interest in land preservation in some areas, and the government seems to be rallying behind farmland with programs like TIP, the rate at which we are losing farmland to development is still very high. Land conservation trusts and other similar organizations will often offer to lease land to landless farmers who commit to using the space for organic, sustainable agriculture, a win-win for everyone involved. But some new, more aggressive, strategies are being employed to reclaim farmland from the jaws of development or other demise. A private equity fund, Farmland LP, offers its investors good returns on a low-risk investment: farmland. More specifically, Farmland LP invests in conventional farmland and then increases its value by converting to meet organic standards. This strategy takes the expensive burden of converting conventional farmland to certified organic, which is usually a several year process, off the farmer. It also invites the interest of investors who are interested not only in making a steady profit but also supporting environmental sustainability and sustainable agriculture.
On a different, more scrappy but just as important note, the explosion of urban and suburban farming is making a big statement about reclaiming what was once farmland. Urban farms occupy lots that may have otherwise been the site of a new apartment building or commercial space and suburban holdouts serve as a reminder of what was once there and hopefully inspire action. A new documentary film, "The Last Crop," chronicles one farming couple's fight to save a large swath of fertile farmland in California's Central Valley, and addresses the tensions between urban and agricultural landscapes. One of the big questions that surfaces in the film is how can we ensure that what is good farmland stays that way for the next hundred or more years? How can we maintain undeveloped, sustainably managed land for future generations? This film, and others that showcase the fight for urban and suburban farmland, are important in raising awareness for farmland, and putting faces to these issues.
All of these strategies: environmentally responsible investment, land conservation trusts, government support and promotion, the enthusiasm and vigor of grassroots urban agriculture, and documentation, are integral to saving farmland for sustainable agriculture, but there's still more to be done. Join the effort! Invest! Push for land-conscious legislation! Help save land for sustainable food and the future.
photo credit: xoque