People sometimes talk about farm living as the “simple life.” It’s true that there is an inherent simplicity in connecting to the natural environment by working the land every day. But sustaining our working farms and ranches is anything but simple, requiring collaboration among communities, state and federal agencies and public support.
The Obama administration’s new “America’s Great Outdoors” initiative, the subject of recent “listening sessions” in Bozeman, Helena and Missoula, is a federal effort designed to help reconnect Americans with our natural resources and renew our commitment to preserving them for future generations. The national conversation it inspires can be vital to preserving our agricultural heritage for the health of our families, economy and environment.
There is a reason the administration chose Montana as the site for the first listening sessions: It is home to some of the nation’s most exciting efforts to protect working landscapes. These collaborations between ranchers, local and federal government, conservationists and others have preserved hundreds of acres of farms and ranches in Montana, and are truly a model for the rest of the country.
“Americans have taken extraordinary steps to protect our land, water, wildlife and history for future generations,” Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said in April in launching the initiative, “but today the places we love face new challenges that require new ideas and new strategies to solve.”
Like Salazar, I too, have a family tradition of farming and ranching. My family operates a corn and soybean farm in McLean County, Illinois. I understand how working the land helps to strengthen our personal connection to our natural heritage and inspires a stewardship ethic in our children.
Regrettably, the farmlands I grew up appreciating are under assault. Every minute of every day, America loses an acre of farmland. Nearly 1 million acres of farm and ranch land in this country are lost each year. In the five years between 2002-07, over 4 million acres of active agricultural land were developed — an area nearly the size of the state of Massachusetts!
We’re challenged by the loss of working lands at a time when we are asking more and more from this land than simply the production of food and fiber. Farmers and ranchers worry about losing our livelihoods and family legacies, but every American should be concerned about the loss of our working farm and ranch lands.
In addition to feeding and clothing our families, America’s farms and ranches enhance the quality of life in our communities, provide fiscal stability for local governments, and bolster the national economy. These lands also help control flooding, protect wetlands and watersheds, maintain air and water quality, and provide food and cover for wildlife. New energy crops like biofuels and wind even have the potential to replace fossil fuels.
The federal government can be an active partner and contributor to the efforts of private landowners, states and communities to secure and manage this resource base for future generations. We welcome the leadership of President Obama, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Salazar to raise public awareness about the value of our working farms and ranches. Along with their support, and public funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, farm bill conservation and other partnership programs that protect our land and water, we can help to sustain an important part of all of our lives.
Public listening sessions about the America’s Great Outdoors initiative will continue throughout the summer; your input can be offered online, as well, at www.doi.gov/americasgreatoutdoors.
The American Farmland Trust will engage in these discussions. I hope others will join us, as these conversations are critical to sustaining our agricultural heritage and natural resources, and inspiring the next generation of stewards.
Jon Scholl is president of American Farmland Trust.