Love Local Food? Here’s a Promising Way to Protect the Local Land that Grows It

, Kendall Science Fellow | February 13, 2017, 5:52 pm EST
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Does your heart beet for farmer’s markets? Do you carrot all about protecting the soil? This Valentine’s Day, lettuce dive deeper into a promising solution for simultaneously protecting land for local food production, ensuring more sustainable agriculture, and creating opportunities for beginning farmers: land trusts.

If you heart local food, it is important to remember that farmland for the food needs protecting, and land trusts are one part of the solution.

Agriculture puns aside, land trusts are nonprofit organizations designed to protect land in perpetuity. Essentially, landowners donate or sell the long-term rights on their property to a land trust—an outside organization that ensures that in the future land is only used for specific purposes, such as for wildlife habitat or agriculture.

There are several reasons why agricultural land trusts can be beneficial. The American Farmland Trust estimates that 40 acres of farmland (roughly the size of 36 football fields) are lost every hour to urban sprawl and development in the United States (that’s over 350,000 acres per year). And there is also no shortage of concerns around existing agricultural lands, including water pollution, soil degradation, and a recent dramatic drop-off in farm incomes. Agricultural land loss and degradation necessitate conservation options such as trusts.

Protecting land for beginner farmers and sustainable agriculture

Land trusts, such as the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT), are non-profit organizations that work with landowners to facilitate different arrangements, such as long-term leases or land donations that legally protect or ensure particular uses of land in the future. Land trusts fill an important need in facilitating the major transfer of land that is anticipated in agriculture because the average farmer’s age is 58, combined with growing competition for land use from urbanization and energy development. Suzan Erem, SILT’s Board President, pointedly reminded me that “the history of the U.S. is that we haven’t seen cities shrink”. Photo: SILT.

One example of an organization with a dedicated focus on sustainable agriculture is the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT). SILT launched in 2015 with a mission to permanently protect land to grow healthy food, and this is the major distinction between SILT and other non-profit land trusts: the requirement for sustainable food production on their farms. While most land trust agreements include prohibitive language to prevent development-related activities, SILT also adds affirmative language requiring sustainable farming (defined by several different sustainability certifications).

SILT also hopes that more and more landowners will donate or participate in long-term leases through their model to institutionalize affordable land access. This will help make land—particularly land for sustainable food production—available so that it is not just about “where you’re born or sheer dumb luck,” according to Suzan Erem, SILT’s Board President. SILT is proud of its relationships with both national organizations such as the National Young Farmer’s Coalition and statewide programs including Lutheran Services, which assists refugee populations in finding land to launch farm businesses.

That’s another crucial benefit of SILT’s approach: landowners who hope to preserve the integrity of their land are paired with beginner farmers looking for an affordable way to get started. Erem explains that the popularity of programs like SILT is related to the excitement of seeing it “giving people a place and a purpose,” and because they provide opportunity to “redefine what you can do with your legacy.”

Local food demand and supporting midsize farms are further reasons to protect agricultural land near cities

Another important piece of this puzzle is strong consumer demand for local food. Late last year, USDA released the results of their first-ever survey of direct marketing (food products sold by farmers directly to consumers, retailers, institutions or other local food intermediaries), and reported that total sales across the country generated this way were an estimated $8.7 billion. The survey estimated that 67% of these sales were from farms located in metropolitan counties and that the 38% of producers responsible for these sales were women (a greater proportion of women than in the general farming population), and 14% were veterans. As I’ve noted previously, women and veterans are groups that have plenty of room to expand in the agricultural sector.

One component of the most profitable farms—regardless of size—is direct marketing, as Dr. Dawn Thilmany McFadden, a member of our Science Network, explained in a blog post last year. This form of sales is particularly important to protect “agriculture of the middle” or midsize farms and ranches, which have been declining for many decades (a trend likely to worsen under the present tightening agricultural economy). Growing Economies, our 2016 report, similarly noted that more direct sales from institutional food purchasers could be a multi-billion dollar boon for the state of Iowa.

Despite the benefits of protecting local farms and food, it’s important to recognize that local food is certainly not a panacea for all environmental concerns. Tradeoffs with impacts such as greenhouse gas emissions require careful consideration, as another Science Network colleague, Dr. David Cleveland, recently noted on our blog. Still, given the stimulus for local economies, and the need to protect farmland in general, how we protect land for local food deserves an important part of the conversation.

And remember for Valentine’s Day, let’s turnip attention to the idea that land trusts and local food make a great pear!

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