According to new statistics released by American Farmland Trust’s (AFT) Farmland Information Center, state governments’ efforts to protect agricultural land through purchase of agricultural conservation easement (PACE) programs accelerated in 2009 despite funding shortfalls. PACE programs pay farmers and ranchers to permanently protect their land with a conservation easement that limits future development and keeps the farmland available for agriculture.

The survey of PACE programs in 26 states found that they acquired seven percent more easements and protected seven percent more acres than in 2008, but cumulatively states spent $101,173,259 — or 30 percent less — than in 2008, likely due to declining land values. For example, agricultural land values declined in several states — Rhode Island (11.1 percent), Delaware (9.0 percent), New Jersey (5.1 percent) and Connecticut (4.2 percent). Overall, states spent $234,932,161 to protect 128,665 acres of farm and ranch land in 2009. The federal government helped bridge the funding gap by releasing $22 million more in Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP) allocations than it did in 2008.

States may need to continue to do more with less. Although land values have declined, the economic downturn and state budget shortfalls have resulted in reduced funding for farmland protection, even in states with typically well-funded programs. States report that they will have $9.5 million less to work with in the upcoming year. These cuts come on top of a 23.5 percent decrease or $109 million reduction in available funding since 2007.

"I’m pleased to see states forging ahead, but the funding reductions are frustrating,” says Julia Freedgood, AFT’s managing director for Farmland and Communities. “This is a critical time to invest in farmland protection while land is relatively inexpensive because it is a strategic long term investment in rural communities. PACE programs not only secure the agricultural land base, they support local economic activity.”

AFT studies show that farmers use PACE proceeds to buy equipment and supplies, retire debt and implement conservation practices. Because these dollars tend to circulate locally and farm and ranch lands underlie agricultural productivity, “PACE programs should be seen as an investment in agricultural infrastructure and local economic development,” Freedgood notes.