Conservation on Working Lands

By Alex Kazer on June 10, 2017.

When we think about conservation, our minds tend to drift to the magnificent, dramatic landscapes of our national parks or a rare, endangered species pushed to the brink of extinction.  Wild places and vulnerable creatures are undoubtedly worth protecting, but the artificial distinction between “natural” spaces that we should conserve and “human” spaces that we can exploit distracts us from the huge potential for resource conservation on working lands.  Perhaps the biggest opportunity lies with agricultural land, which consumes nearly half of the United States’ 2.3 billion acres, making it by far the single most significant land use in the country.  During my service term, I have had the privilege of working with the farmers of Polk County to address this very issue.

Polk has a strong history of agriculture, with many farmers tracing their family’s stewardship of their land back centuries.  These farms have survived natural disasters, commodity price crashes, and countless other hardships, but as the current generation of farmers approaches retirement age, the future is less certain.  A dearth of young farmers ready to take the reins and a booming tourism and recreation sector have led to the rapid loss of farmland due to new residential and commercial developments.  While these changes have brought a measure of financial stability to the county, the loss of carbon-sequestering and habitat-providing trees and topsoil, locally produced food, and agricultural livelihoods are a growing concern.

However, leaders within Polk’s farming community have been working together over the past decade to confront this challenge by preserving large tracts of agricultural land while enhancing environmental protections on that same ground.  The Agricultural Advisory Board, a volunteer group composed of 7 farmers and farm advocates, manage the county’s Voluntary Agricultural District (VAD) program.  Farmers who enroll their land in the VAD program sign a 10-year conservation agreement that prevents the land from being developed and provides access to generous cost-sharing for resource stewardship projects, such as fencing to keep cattle out of streams or planting riparian buffers.

The VAD program has been a great example of farmers taking the lead on conservation, but a few are choosing to go even farther.  Earlier this year, Doug Harmon, Chairman of the aforementioned Ag Advisory Board and lifelong dairy farmer, placed a permanent agricultural easement on his 226 acre farm, ensuring that the land would continue producing food for the community, vulnerable soils would be kept under year-round protective cover, and the property would never be subdivided for development.  While the easement enhanced conservation protection for the land, its development restrictions also greatly reduced the sale price for Mr. Harmon.  Doug was willing to sacrifice a significant amount of money to help preserve the rural character and natural resources of the community.  This act of foresight and selflessness has been a true inspiration, and hopefully it’s just the start for working lands conservation in Polk County.