“The most important resources for a functioning society are soil quality and the production capacity inherent in the land,” says Julia Freedgood, managing director of Farmland Protection and Agricultural Viability Initiatives at American Farmland Trust (AFT). “We need new ideas and solutions to meet the economic and environmental challenges that will shape the future of America’s agricultural landscape and rural regions in the 
21st century. First and foremost is the need to provide healthy food to as many as nine billion people on a shrinking resource base of U.S. farm and 
ranch land, which is threatened by competition for land and water resources.”

Held in the shadow of the first possible government shutdown this year, the National Agricultural Landscapes Forum brought together thought-leaders from around the country to foster a dialogue about the major trends and issues shaping the future of agriculture, conservation and rural regions, and to put forth policy and program options to increase government effectiveness and facilitate cross-jurisdiction collaboration. The forum was hosted by AFT, 
the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Foundation NFP. 

In her opening keynote, USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan challenged forum participants to address some key questions: “What approaches are needed to protect the land? How can we balance the regulatory requirements? How can we make sure our tools will be effective with challenges such as climate and water and future challenges that we don’t know about yet? And, how do we approach the need for 100,000 new farmers each year?”

The group of more than 250 leaders in agriculture and conservation emphasized the following themes to guide policy, improve environmental performance, share the costs and ensure a future for farmers and ranchers on the land: 

  • Improve jurisdictional flexibility and share responsibility so that local and state directors can make resource decisions based on local conditions.
  • Improve program efficiency and inter-agency cooperation to improve conservation outcomes.
  • Target regulations and reduce uncertainty: better direct resources to deal with persistent environmental challenges, and harmonize regulations to avoid redundant requirements that do not enhance environmental protection.
  • Leverage program assistance to maximize program effectiveness: balance regulatory approaches with investments in solutions and leverage state, local and private funds to achieve resource conservation goals.
  • Expand market-based solutions: support the development of ecosystem market regulatory and quality standards and ensure policy drivers and performance-based outcomes encourage participation.
  • Support people on the land: improve policies that support the next generation of farmers and ranchers and address the unique historical and jurisdictional issues for black family farmers, farmers on tribal lands and other underserved populations to ensure equitable treatment in conservation programs and access to agricultural infrastructure and markets.
  • Ensure food security: bring greater attention to decisions affecting land and water use that are critical to the future ability of production agriculture to produce enough food. Policy innovations are needed to help communities and regions plan for a future for agriculture. 
  • Accelerate innovation with research and technology: increase funding for research and technology adoption to improve natural resources management. Participants noted the need for geospatial technology and improved measurement capacity and tools for farmers.

“Farmers and ranchers manage nearly half the land in this country,” says Freedgood. “It is critical to provide them with a complete toolbox so they can meet the special challenges of increasing production, producing feed, fiber and bio-fuels, while providing the ecosystem benefits that are vital to all of us.”

“We came away from the forum having looked at the many different challenges facing U.S. agriculture in tight budget times, but not without a sense of hope,” adds Freedgood. “I was inspired by the creativity and willingness of forum participants to transcend partisan boundaries to think about lasting and affordable solutions. More than ever we need to protect and conserve conservation funding, but it’s no longer enough simply to defend what we’ve got. In the future we must be more proactive: improving soils, increasing water reserves, even reclaiming land for agriculture.”

Proceedings, presentations and video recordings from the National Agriculture Landscapes Forum are available at American Farmland Trust’s website.