According to new statistics released by American Farmland Trust’s (AFT) Farmland Information Center, efforts by state governments to protect agricultural land through purchase of agricultural conservation easement (PACE) programs stalled despite an apparent increase in total acres protected. PACE programs compensate farmers and ranchers for permanently protecting their land with conservation easements that limit future development and keep farmland available for agriculture.

The Farmland Information Center’s survey of PACE programs found that during 2010, state programs acquired four percent more easements to reach a total of 12,415 easements nationwide. Protected acres rose eight percent to 2,185,996 acres.

But Colorado accounted for 59 percent of the year’s increase in acres. The state more than doubled its annual acres protected from 43,723 acres in 2009 to 95,303 acres in 2010. When Colorado is taken out of the mix, the remaining state-level programs protected 21 percent less land than in the prior year. Colorado completed several large acreage projects.

Another bright spot was New Jersey, where in August, Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation allocating $90.6 million to preserve farmland in the Garden State. New Jersey’s State Agriculture Development Committee administers the farmland preservation programs, which include state-initiated farmland protection projects and grants to counties, municipalities and nonprofits. 

In contrast, at least 16 active state programs either reduced spending or continued not to fund farmland protection projects in the face of tight state budgets. All states together spent $185,204,380, or 
21 percent less than 2009, and 45 percent less than the amount in 2008.

Cuts in state-level farmland protection funding are particularly ill-timed because PACE activity had started to gain momentum, encouraged by federal funding. From 2001 to 2011, there was a 32 percent increase in the number of active state-level programs and a 127 percent spike in independent local programs. Easements acquired by state programs rose 153 percent from 4,898 to 12,415 while protected acres skyrocketed by 171 percent. Early adopters have realized significant accomplishments; protecting meaningful proportions of their agricultural land base.

Continued funding is needed to keep pace with development. Only three states had saved more than one acre for each acre of agricultural land converted: Delaware (1.21 acres), Maryland (1.63 acres) and Vermont (3.28 acres). Five additional states had protected more than 0.5 acre for each acre lost: Pennsylvania (0.64 acre), New Jersey (0.69 acre), Massachusetts (0.77 acre), Connecticut (0.83 acre) and Colorado (0.91 acre). PACE programs do not stop development but ensure that there will be a supply of agricultural land in the future.

FRPP allocations

Food production, and therefore long-term food security, depends on the availability of agricultural land. Saving agricultural land as the world’s population grows from 7 billion to 9.4 billion in 2050 will help ensure that the global demand for food can be met. Well-managed agricultural land also provides food and cover for wildlife and protects watersheds. It helps control flooding, absorbs and filters wastewater, provides groundwater recharge, and has the potential to generate a source of renewable energy. Working lands support local economies through sales of farm goods, job creation, support services and businesses, and by creating secondary markets such as food processing and distribution.

The federal government helped bridge the funding gap last year, releasing $31 million more in Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP) allocations than it did in 2009. The FRPP provides matching funds to entities to buy easements on agricultural land. Since its inception in 1996 through 2010, the FRPP has allocated nearly $888 million for easement acquisitions and supporting technical assistance. Of the 25 states that acquired easements through PACE, 22 (or 88 percent) have used 
FRPP funds. In addition to assisting state PACE programs, the FRPP has worked with local PACE entities and non-governmental organizations in 49 states. 

Reductions in federal funding or significant changes to the program could further stall farmland protection efforts nationwide. “We hope that Congress will think long and hard about cuts to conservation because conservation spending is vital to our national security. Conservation dollars spent here won’t be undone by future development. A working lands easement program keeps land available for production and invests in local economies,” says Dr. Katherine “Kitty” Smith, AFT Vice President of Programs and Chief Economist.

As of January 2011, 25 states have active state-level PACE programs. Montana’s state PACE authority expired in 2003. AFT’s Farmland Information Center conducts an annual survey of state and local PACE programs throughout the country. Results are available online at www.farmlandinfo.org.