Transitions: Ed Thompson, former CA State Director of American Farmland Trust

AFT

AFT’s popular No Farms No Food campaign

The second in our series of well-known leaders in the California agriculture scene who recently retired is Edward Thompson, Jr., former CA State Director of American Farmland Trust (AFT), the nation’s leading agricultural land conservation organization. He served as CA Director since 2003.

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Edward Thompson, Jr.

In 1980, Ed actually helped start AFT – as its first General Counsel, and since then, he has served the organization in various capacities, including National Policy Director and Senior Vice President.

During his tenure at AFT, he was a strategic participant in nearly every aspect of farmland preservation, from negotiating real estate transactions and local land use planning to designing state conservation easement programs and drafting federal agricultural legislation. He has also held legal positions with other diverse entities, such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the National Association of Counties.

 

Read on for our info-packed conversation, including:

  • The Climate Change-Farmland-Smart Growth connection
  • CA’s new Agricultural Vision
  • New regulations & policy
  • Cap-and-trade funds for the future
  • Promising farmland mitigation
  • Pros & cons of easements
  • Time-sensitive threats
  • Land grabs
  • The role of smaller farms in conservation
  • Angel investors & new innovations
  • Farmland access for new farmers
  • Where our future food will be grown, and more…

Meaty content on this very important topic… Enjoy!


SOME HIGHLIGHTS FROM OUR INTERVIEW (full transcript at the bottom):

FarmsReach: Having been with AFT since its inception, including its Farmland Information Center, the federal Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, the Farming on the Edge report, and the concept of agricultural conservation easements, what are your overarching reflections about AFT’s growth and progress since the early 80s?

Ed Thompson: I think it is fair to say that AFT launched a movement that has engaged thousands of state and local organizations, raised billions of dollars and saved millions of acres of farmland from development.

While we can be proud of this, the nation continues to lose far more farmland than is being protected. So, there is still a lot of work to be done, particularly in promoting effective land use regulations to complement the voluntary incentive-driven conservation approaches we pioneered.

You have been a big proponent of the links between climate change, smart development and farmland. For those who aren’t familiar, can you summarize in a nutshell the most important points that all people should be aware of?

The most important point is that, acre for acre, urban development generates 50 to 70 times as much greenhouse gas emissions as agriculture. A recent university study of agricultural practices concluded that saving farmland is by far the most important thing California agriculture can do for the climate. And, the key to doing this is to develop more efficiently, meaning: consume less land for each new resident, job and dollar of economic activity. AFT has calculated that cutting farmland conversion in half by 2030 and by 75 percent by 2050, saving 700,000 acres, would have the same result as taking two million cars off the road every year.

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The 2013 Farmland Conservation Conference hosted by AFT and the Napa Farm Bureau was buzzing with energy and promise.  What were some of the key strategic and/or programmatic outcomes from the conference that continue today?

For one, the [Jerry] Brown Administration created the Sustainable Agricultural Land Conservation Program, the first program in the nation to use cap-and-trade climate revenue to fund farmland conservation easements. The program has raised around $40 million in the first couple years, twice what the state of California had invested in farmland conservation over the previous two decades. This, in turn, has helped revitalize the agricultural land trusts around the state.

There have also been a number of important local actions, including the renewal of urban growth boundary initiatives in Sonoma and Ventura Counties. Finally, Local Agency Formation Commissions (LAFCOs) are beginning to take a more active role in farmland protection, as was contemplated when they were first established. Their trade association has teamed with AFT to on a soon-to-be-published white paper how LAFCOs can play an even more effective role.

Agricultural conservation easements are clearly an effective way to protect farmland.  Where do you see future funding for easements coming from?  And, what is your response to folks like The Nature Conservancy looking deeper into alternatives to easements for the future?

With the connection between climate and farmland conservation now well-established, cap-and-trade [programs] should continue to be a fairly significant source of easement funding. But, in my view, the most important potential source of funding is farmland mitigation, which requires developers to contribute to the protection of at least an acre of land for every one they remove from agriculture.

About 15 local jurisdictions now have farmland mitigation programs, and state agencies such as the High Speed Rail Authority have agreed to mitigate farmland losses caused by their projects. If this were to become universal throughout the state, the impact would be game-changing. Do the math: If we continue to develop 40,000 acres of farmland a year, and if the mitigation fee were $10,000 per acre (which is the going rate), that would generate $400 million for agricultural conservation easements every year. No other possible source could come close.

Conservation easements have become popular because they are a very flexible tool. But they do have drawbacks, [mainly] they are expensive. Another, in terms of their effectiveness, is that they are voluntary agreements. These limitations almost assure that, at least in the short term, they can only protect a patchwork of land, leaving surrounding land unprotected as well as subjecting the protected land itself to the potential impact of nearby development.

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In areas where farmland is genuinely threatened by development, these drawbacks tend to make farmland protection progress difficult. It’s like the chicken and the egg: Landowners are reluctant to commit to easements where the fate of nearby land is up in the air.

Fortunately, there is a way to counteract this by accompanying them with land use policies that prevent non-farm development in areas that are planned for agriculture. This combination of “carrots and sticks” has been the formula for success in nearly all of the local jurisdictions that have succeeded in protecting farmland and securing a future for agriculture.

Truth be told, the kind of land use policies that are needed are difficult to pass because of a fear of the loss of property values. But, a well-funded easement acquisition program can at least partially compensate for the impact of regulations. And, if California had a truly robust source of easement funding – say, a universal farmland mitigation requirement – the amount of money that easements could put in landowners’ bank accounts and pump back into the agricultural economy should make the “carrots and sticks” approach to farmland protection much more popular and effective. That’s the way it has worked elsewhere in the country.

What are you most encouraged by when it comes to farmland conservation in California?  In the U.S.?

Well, certainly, the Sustainable Agricultural Land Conservation Program in California. Farmland conservation funding had been languishing for years, but now there a respectable – through still insufficient – amount of money available. Another positive development is that the new version of California Agricultural Vision explicitly includes land conservation among its four strategies for sustaining the industry.

Also, the distinct value of agriculture that remains in urbanizing areas is being recognized. So, there is a growing recognition that we need to protect the land on which it depends, which not coincidentally is the land most threatened by development.

Moreover, I think that even mainstream agriculture is beginning to realize that the small-scale farmers near cities, whom many have dismissed as unimportant, are now generating increased understanding of and sympathy for all producers. The small-scale farmers are the ambassadors, if you will, from agriculture to urban America. And, in an increasingly urban society, agriculture needs all the understanding and sympathy it can get from the 98 percent of the population that doesn’t farm.

What do you feel are the most time-sensitive threats when it comes to preserving farmland in CA? 

To me, the most significant threat is the pressure exerted by climate change and water supplies on the one hand, and on the other by population growth. California will soon have a population of 50 million and, if we keep developing farmland at the current rate – consuming an acre for every 10 new residents – there will be a million and a half fewer acres of land on which to produce food for that growing population. Plus, scientific forecasts show that water supply reductions could result in the fallowing of an additional million acres of California farmland.

Considering that we now have only about nine million acres of irrigated land, the loss of 2.5 million – 28% – would be devastating in a state that produces so much of the country’s fruits, nuts and vegetables.

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What are you most discouraged by with regards to farmland in California or in the U.S. for the long-term?

I guess my biggest disappointment is that the farm community in California hasn’t been more actively willing to support farmland conservation. Institutions like Farm Bureau acknowledge that agriculture can’t survive without land. But, agriculture also needs other things – water, labor, reasonable regulations – that are a higher immediate priority, whereas the biggest impact of farmland loss is farther down the road.

Then, too, there is a certain ambivalence among farmers about the land. They profess a deep love of the land, but also tend to believe that, when the time comes, for whatever reason, they should be able to sell it for development.

We all know that accessing farmland is incredibly expensive, which can prevent the next generation of farmers from being profitable and/or successful.  Can you share any thoughts or ideas about providing access to the future farmers in CA or the U.S.?

It’s really several issues. One is that fewer young people who were raised on farms want to take over the family business, which leaves a vacuum to be filled by someone else. And that’s where the high cost of land comes in. Unless we want the next generation of farmers to be large corporations with little real attachment to the land or the communities in which it is located, something needs to be done to help beginning farmers afford the land.

One thing that can be done is to retire the development rights on the land with conservation easements, thus bringing down the cost. Affordability of land is, thus, another reason we need a robust funding source for easements. But when land in California goes for $20,000 and up [per acre] just for agriculture, it is still a barrier to entry. There is no shortage of young people who want to farm, but most lack the capital to invest in land, or the credit-worthiness to borrow, even if it were more affordable.

I think we need “angel investors”: individuals, philanthropies or government programs that would put up funds – or their own land – to help beginning farmers afford land, whether by purchase, lease or some other long-term arrangement.

We seem to be in a period of experimentation that, hopefully, will result in the emergence of models that successfully address the key challenges wherever and in whatever combination they occur.

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Farmland regulations and policy can be effective, if they exist, and especially in urban and peri-urban planning stages.  What is the status of any impactful regulations that may be implemented?  

One of the most important new policies of the past decade has been SB 375, the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008. It established a framework under which local governments were given incentives to reconsider their growth plans, and to embrace more compact, efficient forms of development that would reduce GHG emission to target levels and, not coincidentally, conserve farmland.

 

Considering climate change, the steep learning curve for rural farming, and the incredible amount of investment in urban, greenhouse and hydro/aquaponic farming, where do you think the majority of our food in the future – say 50 years from now – will be grown?  Who will grow it?

I wish I knew, so I could invest my childrens’ inheritance! My guess is that agriculture will continue to be practiced in the same places that it is today, but probably on a smaller scale and in a more intensive way. Agriculture exists where it does primarily because of the resources – soil, water and climate – that make it more productive and profitable. Technology has made it possible to farm areas that are intrinsically less favorable, but it is generally more costly to do this and it has greater environmental impacts.

Hopefully, we will retain our best land with the most reliable water, so we won’t have to rely on more marginal land or on artificial environments that are incredibly expensive. I don’t think we can afford to repeat what we did to the Los Angeles Basin and the Valley of Heart’s Delight (now known as Silicon Valley), which were still two of the most productive areas of California when I was born.

What would your advice be for other farm-focused and/or food-focused organizations to get involved in the work of AFT, farmland conservation and/or farmland access?

Everyone is looking at the same issues from a slightly different perspective. So, my advice isn’t “drop whatever you’re doing and join AFT.” But I do think everyone needs to take another look at how land relates to their specific interests.

Generally speaking, the more land we have, the better it is for farmers, the environment and the food supply. The less land we have, the greater the problems associated with having to push the land harder to feed ourselves. I think there’s a limit to which agriculture can continue to substitute capital and technology for land and labor, which is what we’ve been doing for at least a century. The negative feedback loops are just becoming too powerful, leading to more and more conflict over the very issues that today pit farmers against environmentalists, nutritionists and others who bear the costs.

urban_encroachment

If you had a magic wand in the real world we live in today, what would you make happen in CA with regards to farmland?

I think the single most impactful thing we could do is require universal mitigation of farmland conversion, with fees based on the productivity of the land and the efficiency with which it is developed. This would encourage more compact urban patterns (saving farmland that would otherwise be developed) and raise a truly significant amount of money – $3 to $4 billion over the next decade – to invest in permanent land conservation and, possibly, other things agriculture needs to prosper. It will not take a magic wand, just steadfast political will.

Now that you are a free man, how will you spend the next year, 5 years, 10 years? 

Who knows what life has in store? Thus far, I have been blessed with good health, a wonderful family and a deep appreciation of nature. Hopefully, I will continue to enjoy them for a long time.


Thank you, Ed, for your insightful and educational responses! Here’s to prime farmland being dedicated to agriculture for many more decades to come.

Stay tuned for our next post in the series: Tom Willey of T&D Willey Farms.  If you missed the last post in the series, we interviewed Shermain Hardesty, former Director of the UC Small Farm Program and advisor/consultant for CA farmers for over 30 years.

If you know of other influential folks in the sustainable agriculture sector who have transitioned recently to a life of more freedom, and who would like to share their stories, let us know!


FULL TRANSCRIPT OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH ED THOMPSON:

FarmsReach: Having been with American Farmland Trust (AFT) since its inception, including its Farmland Information Center, the federal Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, the Farming on the Edge report, and the concept of agricultural conservation easements (wow, that’s a lot!), what are your overarching reflections about AFT’s growth and progress since the early 80s?

Ed Thompson: I think it is fair to say that AFT launched a movement that has engaged thousands of state and local organizations, raised billions of dollars and saved millions of acres of farmland from development.

While we can be proud of this, the nation continues to lose far more farmland than is being protected. So, there is still a lot of work to be done, particularly in promoting effective land use regulations to complement the voluntary incentive-driven conservation approaches we pioneered.

Can you share more about AFT’s strategic plans for the future, especially in light of the (depressing) state of the nation and diminishing environmental protections?

I would defer to my successor here in California and to AFT’s national leadership. But in my opinion, I hope they will continue to focus on game-changing policy innovations such as establishing a meaningful, statewide goal for reducing farmland conversion and requiring universal mitigation for farmland losses exceeding that goal.

You have been a big proponent of the links between climate change, smart development and farmland. For those who aren’t familiar, can you summarize in a nutshell the most important points that all people should be aware of?

The most important point is that, acre for acre, urban development generates 50 to 70 times as much greenhouse gas emissions as agriculture. A recent university study of agricultural practices concluded that saving farmland is by far the most important thing California agriculture can do for the climate. And the key to doing this is to develop more efficiently, meaning: consume less land for each new resident, job and dollar of economic activity. AFT has calculated that cutting farmland conversion in half by 2030 and by 75 percent by 2050, saving 700,000 acres, would have the same result as taking two million cars off the road every year.

The 2013 Farmland Conservation Conference hosted by AFT and the Napa Farm Bureau was buzzing with energy and promise.  What were some of the key strategic and/or programmatic outcomes from that conference, which continue today?

Well, it’s hard to trace specific accomplishments to any conference. But a number of important things have happened since then. For one, the [Jerry] Brown Administration created the Sustainable Agricultural Land Conservation Program, the first program in the nation to use cap-and-trade climate revenue to fund farmland conservation easements. The program has raised around $40 million in the first couple years, twice what the state of California had invested in farmland conservation over the previous two decades. This, in turn, has helped revitalize the agricultural land trusts around the state.

There have also been a number of important local actions, including the renewal of urban growth boundary initiatives in Sonoma and Ventura Counties. Finally, Local Agency Formation Commissions (LAFCOs) are beginning to take a more active role in farmland protection, as was contemplated when they were first established. Their trade association has teamed with AFT to on a soon-to-be-published white paper how LAFCOs can play an even more effective role.

Agricultural conservation easements are clearly an effective way to protect farmland; however they depend on land trusts somehow filling their coffers to fund the easements.  Where do you see future funding for easements coming from?  And, what is your response to folks like The Nature Conservancy looking deeper into alternatives to easements for the future?

With the connection between climate and farmland conservation now well-established, cap-and-trade [programs] should continue to be a fairly significant source of easement funding. But, in my view, the most important potential source of funding is farmland mitigation, which requires developers to contribute to the protection of at least an acre of land for every one they remove from agriculture.

About 15 local jurisdictions in California now have farmland mitigation programs, and state agencies such as the High Speed Rail Authority have agreed to mitigate farmland losses caused by their projects. But, if this practice were to become universal throughout the state, the impact would be game-changing. Do the math: If we continue to develop 40,000 acres of farmland a year, and if the mitigation fee were $10,000 per acre (which is the going rate), that would generate $400 million for agricultural conservation easements every year. No other possible source could realistically come close.

Though this seems like it would be a heavy burden for developers and prospective homeowners, the fee would amount to only $1,000 per dwelling in subdivisions of 10 units per acre. That’s only 4/10 of one percent of the average cost of the average home in the Central Valley and could be further reduced by developing at even higher densities, as most affordable housing is. Of course, this assumes developers would pass along the entire cost to homeowners to maintain their profit margins. But, even if they had to eat the entire cost themselves, I think they would have a hard time proving – not just claiming – that it would make development uneconomic.

Conservation easements have become popular because they are a very flexible tool. But they do have drawbacks, foremost among which is that they are expensive. Another, in terms of their effectiveness, is that they are voluntary agreements. These limitations almost assure that, at least in the short term, they can only protect a patchwork of land, leaving surrounding land unprotected as well as subjecting the protected land itself to the potential impact of nearby development.

In remote areas with little development pressure, neither the cost of easements nor the risk of conflicting land uses risk pose much of a problem. But in areas where farmland is genuinely threatened by development, these drawbacks tend to make farmland protection progress difficult. It’s like the chicken and the egg: Landowners are reluctant to commit to easements where the fate of nearby land is up in the air. But, the surrounding land is up for grabs because few landowners are willing to make the commitment required by easements. This explains why we don’t have more successful easement programs in California.

Fortunately, there is a way to counteract the drawbacks of easements, which is to accompany them with land use policies that effectively prevent non-farm development in areas that are planned for agriculture. This combination of “carrots and sticks” has been the formula for success in nearly all of the local jurisdictions that have truly succeeded in protecting farmland and securing a future for agriculture. That includes six California counties that together account for one-firth of the state’s annual agricultural production value: Marin, Monterey, Napa, Sonoma, Ventura and Yolo.

Truth be told, the kind of land use policies that are needed are difficult to pass largely because of the opposition of farmers and other landowners who fear the loss of property values. But let’s recognize that a well-funded easement acquisition program can at least partially compensate for the impact of regulations. And, if California had a truly robust source of easement funding – say, a universal farmland mitigation requirement – the amount of money that easements could put in landowners’ bank accounts and pump back into the agricultural economy should make the “carrots and sticks” approach to farmland protection much more popular and effective. That’s the way it has worked elsewhere in the country.

What are you most encouraged by when it comes to farmland conservation in California?  In the U.S.?

Well, certainly, the Sustainable Agricultural Land Conservation Program is a breath of fresh air here in California. Farmland conservation funding had been languishing for years, but now there a respectable – through still insufficient – amount of money available. Another positive development is that the new version of California Agricultural Vision explicitly includes land conservation among its four strategies for sustaining the industry. The others relate to water, labor and regulations, so it’s encouraging that land ranks up there as a concern.

From a national perspective, I guess the most encouraging thing would be the growing local food movement. Ever since I got involved with farmland, it has been clear that there are two agricultures in America: There is the large-scale, commodity-driven agriculture that exists in the plains states and (to some extent) in places like our own Central Valley. And then there is the smaller scale agriculture that is practiced mostly in mixed-terrain areas like New England, the Great Lakes states and on parts of the California coast.

For years, the larger commercial agriculture has received most of the attention and money from the federal Farm Bill, while the smaller scale producers have been largely ignored or even disparaged as “not real agriculture.” But, now the local food movement is changing that.

Finally, the distinct value of agriculture that remains in urbanizing areas is being recognized. So, there is also a growing recognition that we need to protect the land on which it depends, which not coincidentally is the land most threatened by development.

Moreover, I think that even mainstream agriculture is beginning to realize that the small-scale farmers near cities, whom many have dismissed as unimportant, are now generating increased understanding of and sympathy for all producers. The small-scale farmers are the ambassadors, if you will, from agriculture to urban America. And, in an increasingly urban society, agriculture needs all the understanding and sympathy it can get from the 98 percent of the population that doesn’t farm.

The concept of “land grabbing” is thrown around a lot lately.  How do you define it in the U.S., and to what extent is it happening in CA and the U.S?

The USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) article should shed some light on land grabbing. This sounds to me like the latest variation on the big farm-small farm debate in which small farm advocates fear that larger operations, particularly if absentee owned, will undermine rural communities and harm the environment.

Farms in the U.S. have been getting bigger and fewer in number for at least a half century. It seems mostly to be a matter of larger operations being able to take better advantage of economies of scale, particularly in the use of technology. Not sure anything can be done about that in a capitalist society. Having spent time in the Midwest, I can attest firsthand to the hollowing out of rural communities as farms have consolidated. But, research I did 30 years ago (Small is Bountiful) suggested that bigger farms actually tend to employ more environmentally sound practices, most likely because they can afford to. But, that was before the organic/local movement caught fire.

What do you feel are the most time-sensitive threats when it comes to preserving farmland in CA?  Development? Solar farms?  The SF-LA train?  Land grabbing?  Drought?  Other?

To me, the most significant threat is the pressure exerted by climate change and water supplies on the one hand, and on the other by population growth. California will soon have a population of 50 million and, if we keep developing farmland at the current rate – consuming an acre for every 10 new residents – there will be a million and a half fewer acres of land on which to produce food for that growing population. Plus, I have seen scientific forecasts that water supply reductions due to climate change could result in the fallowing of as much an additional million acres of California farmland.

Considering that we now have only about nine million acres of irrigated land, the loss of 2.5 million – 28% – would be devastating in a state that produces so much of the country’s fruits, nuts and vegetables. That’s why we need to preserve the very best farmland—no matter what kind of development threatens it – and assure that it has adequate water.

What are you most discouraged by with regards to farmland in California, in the U.S.? (maybe duplicative with above, or maybe some long-term thoughts?).

I guess my biggest disappointment is that the farm community in California hasn’t been more actively willing to support farmland conservation. Institutions like Farm Bureau acknowledge that agriculture can’t survive without land. But, agriculture also needs other things – water, labor, reasonable regulations – that are a higher immediate priority, whereas the biggest impact of farmland loss is farther down the road.

Then, too, there is a certain ambivalence among farmers about the land. They profess a deep love of the land, but also tend to believe that, when the time comes, for whatever reason, they should be able to sell it for development. And this view is reinforced by the uncertainty over water, etc. I get that, but the truth is that few farmers will actually have the chance to sell for development. Think about it. If, indeed, California loses another 1.5 million acres of farmland by mid-century, that’s less than one in five acres of the state’s irrigated cropland and only 3 percent of all agricultural land, including grazing land. (To be clear, the demise of 20 percent of the state’s irrigated land would be a huge blow to agriculture, even if few would be able to cash in on it.)

So, why do farm organizations defend the right of a small percentage of farmers to cash in on development – or sit idly by as it happens – when it will do nothing for the majority of farmers and will clearly hurt agriculture itself? One reason seems to be that those farmers who are in a position to take advantage of development are more active in local land use issues and have a disproportionate influence on the policy positions of farm organizations.

All that said, there are places in this country, notably the mid-Atlantic states, where the active support of Farm Bureaus and other agricultural organizations for farmland conservation has resulted in very robust programs that have generated billions of dollars for conservation easements. This has protected more than a million acres of farmland and has been invested in the farm economy to help revitalize the industry through expansion, debt retirement, innovation, generational succession and environmental improvement. Just as importantly, its commitment to conservation seems to have generated tremendous goodwill for agriculture among the general public.  After all, the public paid the bill for the easements and is now invested in agriculture in a way that seems to have translated into a better understanding of its needs and sympathy for its policy positions.

This is an area where, despite its prominence, California agriculture has failed to connect the dots between its support – or lack thereof – for conservation and public support for agriculture itself. Maybe, if California farm organizations were seen to actively promote farmland conservation, they would find that the overwhelmingly urban public would be more willing to help agriculture meet its other needs. This is exactly what has happened in California localities where the farm community has supported robust farmland conservation programs.

We all know that accessing farmland is incredibly expensive, which can prevent the next generation of farmers from being profitable and/or successful.  Can you share any thoughts or ideas about providing access to the future farmers in CA or the U.S.?

Tough issue. And it’s really several issues. One is that fewer young people who were raised on farms want to take over the family business. There’s just too much action elsewhere and, let’s face it, farming is a tedious, dirty business. As fewer farm kids want to take over, it leaves a vacuum to be filled by someone else. And that’s where the high cost of land comes in. Unless we want the next generation of farmers to be large corporations with little real attachment to the land or the communities in which it is located, something needs to be done to help beginning farmers afford the land.

One thing that can be done is to retire the development rights on the land with conservation easements, thus bringing down the cost. Affordability of land is, thus, another reason we need a robust funding source for easements. But when land in California goes for $20,000 and up [per acre] just for agriculture, it is still a barrier to entry. Based on what I’ve seen, there is no shortage of young people who want to farm, many of them attracted by the increasing interest in small farms and direct local markets. But, most lack the capital to invest in land, or the credit-worthiness to borrow, even if it were more affordable. Quite a conundrum.

I think we need “angel investors”: individuals, philanthropies or government programs that would put up funds – or their own land – to help beginning farmers afford land, whether by purchase, lease or some other long-term arrangement. Already, there is a lot of farmland being bought up by well-off city people for second homes and investment. And many of those owners really don’t want to, let alone know how to, farm. So, it seems like a natural to come up with arrangements under which young farmers could live on and farm the land, while the owners would be relieved of the burden of managing it and taking care of it. Groups like CA FarmLink are already working on things like this. But, with hundreds of billions of dollars worth of farm property about to change hands within a generation, this kind of activity really has to be taken to scale.

We seem to be in a period of experimentation that, hopefully, will result in the emergence of models that successfully address the key challenges wherever and in whatever combination they occur.

What do you think these initiatives need to be more impactful and successful?

As I implied earlier, money – and a lot of it – is the key to success. All the rest is “plumbing.”

Of course, farmland regulations and policy can be effective, if they exist, and especially in urban and peri-urban planning stages.  What is the status of any impactful new regulations that may be implemented?  

One of the most important new policies of the past decade has been SB 375, the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008. It recognized the link between patterns of urban development, greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. And it established a framework under which local governments were given incentives to reconsider their growth plans, and to embrace more compact, efficient forms of development that would reduce GHG emission to target levels and, not coincidentally, conserve farmland. This idea was a real game-changer and could do a lot of good for the environment, the economy and agriculture.

For instance, in the San Joaquin Valley, the so-called Sustainable Communities Strategies (SCS) developed by each county will, if implemented, collectively reduce GHG ten percent while saving tens of thousands of acres of farmland. But, the key words are “if implemented,” that is, if the targets are reflected in actual development patterns. And, that is far from certain, given that the region’s counties have pretty much ignored similar goals to which they agreed in the San Joaquin Blueprint a few years earlier. SB 375 doesn’t seem to have the kind of teeth required to get them to honor their commitments. So, my hope is that the legislature will amend the law to strengthen it by creating real incentives and disincentives for compliance and the failure to make progress.

What are your thoughts on market-based vs policy efforts re: farmland in general?

As I suggested earlier, they are both more effective when combined in “hybrid” systems in which the strengths of one counteract the weaknesses of the other and vice versa. Market based approaches have the advantage of being voluntary, compensatory and permanent. But, they are also expensive, slow and piecemeal. Regulatory approaches counteract these weaknesses because they are quick, cheap and comprehensive. But their drawbacks (they are compulsory, non-compensatory and temporary) are the mirror image of the strengths of market systems. When you put them together, you take advantage of their respective strengths to offset their weaknesses.

Considering climate change, the steep learning curve for rural farming, and the incredible amount of investment in urban, greenhouse and hydro/aquaponic farming, where do you think the majority of our food in the future – say 50 years from now – will be grown?  Who will grow it?

I wish I knew, so I could invest my childrens’ inheritance! My guess is that agriculture will continue to be practiced in the same places that it is today, but probably on a smaller scale and in a more intensive way. Agriculture exists where it does primarily because of the resources – soil, water and climate – that make it more productive and profitable. Technology has made it possible to farm areas that are intrinsically less favorable, for example, the foothills rather than valley floors. But it is generally more costly to do this and it has greater environmental impacts.

Hopefully, we will retain our best land with the most reliable water, so we won’t have to rely on more marginal land or on artificial environments that are incredibly expensive. I don’t think we can afford to repeat what we did to the Los Angeles Basin and the Valley of Heart’s Delight (now known as Silicon Valley), which were still two of the most productive areas of California when I was born.

What would your advice be for other farm-focused and/or food-focused organizations to get involved in the work of AFT, farmland conservation and/or farmland access?

Everyone is looking at the same issues from a slightly different perspective. So, my advice isn’t “drop whatever you’re doing and join AFT.” But I do think everyone needs to take another look at how land relates to their specific interests.

Generally speaking, the more land we have, the better it is for farmers, the environment and the food supply. The less land we have, the greater the problems associated with having to push the land harder to feed ourselves. I think there’s a limit to which agriculture can continue to substitute capital and technology for land and labor, which is what we’ve been doing for at least a century. The negative feedback loops are just becoming too powerful, leading to more and more conflict over the very issues that today pit farmers against environmentalists, nutritionists and others who bear the costs.

If you had a magic wand in the real world we live in today, what would you make happen in CA with regards to farmland?

I think the single most impactful thing we could do is require universal mitigation of farmland conversion, with fees based on the productivity of the land and the efficiency with which it is developed. This would encourage more compact urban patterns (saving farmland that would otherwise be developed) and raise a truly significant amount of money – $3 to $4 billion over the next decade – to invest in permanent land conservation and, possibly, other things agriculture needs to prosper. It will not take a magic wand, just steadfast political will.

Now that you are a free man, how will you spend the next year, 5 years, 10 years? 

Who knows what life has in store? Thus far, I have been blessed with good health, a wonderful family and a deep appreciation of nature. Hopefully, I will continue to enjoy them for a long time.

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