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.

Arizona authorizes PACE

As of January 2010, 25 states have active state-level PACE programs. Montana’s state PACE authority expired in 2003. Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii and Texas — have authorized PACE but have not set up programs.

In March 2010, New Mexico passed the Heritage Conservation Act that creates and funds an easement acquisition program to protect a variety of resources including farm and ranch land. Dozens of local communities and private land trusts complement state programs or, where none exist, independently protect agricultural land.

Nationwide, thousands of communities benefit from protected farms and ranches for local production of food, fiber energy and ecosystem services as well as value-added enterprises that ripple through local economies. Beyond their direct and indirect economic impacts, protected farms maintain open space, community heritage and rural character in perpetuity.

Combined PACE programs reached important milestones in 2009. To date, the state programs have invested over $3 billion to protect more than 2 million acres of farm and ranch land. States with well-established PACE programs have added to their achievements. Four states — Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware and Massachusetts — have each invested more than $100 million toward farmland protection while Maryland has invested more than $575 million, Pennsylvania more than $700 million, and New Jersey more than $800 million. Colorado, Maryland and Pennsylvania have each protected more than 345,000 acres.

AFT’s Farmland Information Center conducts an annual survey of state and local PACE programs throughout the country. The results are available online at: www.farmlandinfo.org.