John Piotti has worked at the forefront of sustainable agriculture since the early 1990s, first in his home state of Maine, and now nationally. In 2016, he became the President of American Farmland Trust (AFT), bringing new energy to this storied organization that helped create the conservation agriculture movement.
Under Piotti’s leadership, AFT has engaged in the most comprehensive study of American land use ever conducted, helped secure an additional $200 million/year in federal funding for agricultural conservation easements, and launched new initiatives that advance environmentally-forward farming practices, combat climate change, and support next generation farmers.
Prior to joining AFT, Piotti served as president of Maine Farmland Trust, which during his tenure became recognized as one of the most innovative and effective farm-support groups in the nation. Piotti was also in the Maine State Legislature, where he chaired the agriculture committee and was later elected house majority leader. In 2005, he received a prestigious Eisenhower Fellowship, which he used to study agricultural policy in Europe. In 2013, Piotti was named to Maine Magazine’s inaugural list of one of the 50 people who have done the most for the state. He holds three degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: in engineering, public policy, and systems management.
How challenging is it for farmers to take a long-term view of what will keep their farms viable and work that into their business and financial planning?
I think it is achievable, but you need tools and information to help you get there. I don’t think they all exist in the right form. For instance, if you’re following organic practices and taking that seriously, you’re taking some steps in that direction, but how can you use cost accounting and other tools to confirm that what you’re doing will succeed long term? I am hopeful, particularly on the farming practices side, we will have better tools in short order. I think the bigger challenge is that, in addition to thinking about the long-term view, you also have to meet short term profitability requirements. You’ve got to have a healthy bank account or you’re not going to be able to stay in business. Successful farming requires piecing together a strategy which is viable long-term, but also meets short-term cashflow needs.
What points is AFT focused on between viability and farmland access?
The short version: farmers are going to need land to achieve their goals. There is a direct link between farm viability and farmland access. We don’t know exactly what the needs of an individual farmer are going to be in the next five years, let alone 10 or 15 or 20. We often see a need for a lot of farmers to get access to new land not because they would be enlarging their operation, but because they are on leased land that they don’t own or control. This is a challenge with a lot of the dairy farms in the Northeast. Additionally, as farmers think about adopting more sustainable farming practices, land access is necessary to implement innovative practices for building soil health and carbon sequestration. It may take more land or different land if a farmer is to have adequate cover crops or rotations, or is to adopt other conservation practices.
AFT has spent a lot of its energy over 38 years advancing farmland protection with easements, and we are sometimes pigeonholed as only doing that. But we’re much broader than that. We always throw around the statistic that we’ve helped protect six and a half million acres of farmland permanently, because we’re proud of that; but we’ve also helped protect farmland in ways that don’t involve easements, such as current use taxation, smart growth strategies, and ag districts. And beyond that, of course, we also do a lot of work advancing good farming practices and supporting next generation farmers.
What is an agricultural conservation easement?
An agricultural conservation easement (“ACE” or “ag easement”) is a deed restriction that landowners voluntarily place on their property to keep productive land available for farming. Landowners can grant an easement to a public agency or qualified conservation organization. A well-structured ag easement is tailored to each property and to the needs and conservation goals of each landowner. Ag easements typically permit agricultural activities and structures, but limit uses that are inconsistent with commercial agriculture such as non-farm dwellings.
On the other side of this farmland loss, how does this influence AFT’s work toward permanent solutions for farmland conservation and protection?
We just released phase one of a new national study that shows prior estimates of farmland loss were way too low. We’ve lost 31 million acres over the last 20 years. That’s over 1.5 million acres a year, which equates to three acres every minute. Even more concerning is that we are losing our best farmland faster. Land that is often more productive and versatile and resilient.
I think we’re going to need that land to restore our planet. I am convinced that farming done right is potentially a big part of the answer to sequestering carbon. We are losing the opportunity to utilize lost farmland in a way that could be positive. It’s a negative feedback loop. As we lose more land, there is considerably more pressure to use the remaining land more intensely and to use marginal land for farming that is best suited for other activities to combat environmental degradation.
And for new farmers, farmland loss means that less farmland is available for them. The biggest barrier of entry is cost, and a diminishing supply drives up cost. Everyone loses as a result. We’re now using more marginal land for agricultural production, while forcing existing and beginning farmers out of the game because it’s beyond their means to either keep or purchase land. All of this influences how we choose to marshal our resources for a wide variety of land protection practices, from easements to tax incentives to conservation practices. We need to increase farm viability and it all starts with having sufficient land of good quality to make sure farmers can thrive. Getting farmers started on subpar land puts them in a hole from the get-go. And success, in particular those first five years, is an incredible challenge.
If holding onto what we have isn’t enough, what else do you foresee for how we grow farmland numbers?
Absolutely it’s not good enough. Because even if we didn’t lose another acre to development, we’re going to lose a lot of acres due to climate change. Get in an airplane and see the amount of farmland that’s along the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland that very well could be salt marsh in 25 to 50 years. There’s a whole swath of land in production right now that’s going to be unavailable for agriculture.
I wish I had better answers for building our farmland, but clearly, the strategy for now is to protect as much as we can that’s out there. And that doesn’t mean only permanent protection, but other strategies that hold off development, like good planning. We’ve been at this for about 40 years. The tools have been massaged and refined since the late seventies and early eighties — it’s really just a matter of utilizing them. We just need to do it at a higher scale and a little bit more strategically and holistically.
That’s the proactive side of it—what we need to do to prevent more harm. And we have the tools to move in that direction.
What are some of the innovations you see to improve farmland protection?
During my last 10 years at Maine Farmland Trust we implemented “buy, protect, sell” projects which protected land exactly at the right point in time. The Trust buys land at a price that is market value or close to it, supporting the farmer selling it. We then protect it with an easement. Then the Trust sells it at a more affordable price to an incoming farmer. The approach serves an existing farmer, plus creates an opportunity for a new farmer, and meets a farm viability goal for both.
I also think we have to think differently. In the state of Maine, which is where I’m from, about five percent of our land area is prime farmland and about five percent of the land area is wetlands. Think about this. Wetlands are incredibly important ecologically and for a ton of other reasons. And so, we implement a complete moratorium on development in wetlands. This makes sense. But farmland is also ecologically valuable, and in addition, we use it grow food. Farmland is an amazing resource. Yet in many cases we have incentives built into local ordinances and state policy funding mechanisms to build on agricultural land. We prevent development on wetlands and encourage it on farmland. Why? I think it’s a mindset. We don’t fully appreciate farmland as the amazing resource it is.
What are kinds of conversations that we need to be having with farmers in the unfortunate position of choosing between selling the farm versus trying to keep it going?
You have to work at a grassroots level to identify what’s not going well for the farm. Is the issue that there is no one to take over the farm? Or is it that they’re in dairy and finances are tough and it seems like the only option is selling the property? It’s hard to make the case to a farmer who’s in a precarious position to either keep the farm or protect the land for agricultural use. We have to meet farmers where they are. We also have to present a vision of the future that helps farmers see that their properties have a viable future as farms. Part of the answer is to focus on communities, bringing together young beginning farmers with those wishing to retire, and then helping those older farmers think seriously about land protection, succession, and even leasing to help young farmers get started. Sometimes the biggest impact can be made on the ground by just doing a few things that bring together farm communities that wish to remain farm communities.
The other conversation we need to have is to move beyond simply saying we’re losing land. We need to emphasize that we’re losing land that’s irreplaceable and essential. Data and framing must show that farmland is necessary for sustainability. California had been using its cap-and-trade program just to fund renewable energy projects. Then we made the case that farmland protection was another way to reduce greenhouse gases. Over $120 million has now been allocated to protect farmland in California, with more to come. We need to get more people to see farmland this way.