September 26, 2023

PHILADELPHIA — Last week, farmers and environmentalists had their day on Smith Hill to urge lawmakers to act now to save the state’s declining agricultural land.

In the governor’s proposed $14 billion budget, lawmakers in the General Assembly are debating appropriation resolutions (H6018 and S0560) that would support the state’s agricultural preservation initiatives beginning in the upcoming fiscal year.

The Agriculture Land Preservation Commission (ALPC), a government agency in charge of managing farmland conservation activities, normally receives funds through a distribution from green projects bonds that are put up for vote every two years.

The last time the programs received financing was in the 2021 green bond, which provided $3 million for both forest and farmland preservation. However, the green projects bond approved by voters last November did not include any fresh cash for agricultural preservation.

According to the commission, the ALPC will have $317,000 left in its bank account after paying all of its existing debts, ecoRI News reported last month. Due to its financial difficulties, the commission was forced to concentrate on just a few farms, leaving another 50 farm preservation applications in its backlog.

The projected 8,000 acres of farmland owned by the organization would be lost to development by 2040 if financing for farmland protection is not provided. Around 2,500 people are employed in the farming industry in Rhode Island, which also brings in $250 million in direct state income.

Rep. Michelle McGaw, D-Portsmouth, the resolution’s sponsor, told the House Finance Committee that the funding was crucial to support farmers as small-town businesses.

“We observed the difficulty with food security in regard to the epidemic,” remarked McGaw, “when we had supply chain concerns, how crucial it was to make sure that we had access to local food sources. As time goes on, it will become more and more crucial to support our neighborhood farmers.

McGaw warned that Rhode Island would be passing up a significant amount of federal assistance for conservation if it doesn’t support the ALPC. The state may earn an additional $5 million to $8 million in federal funding for every $5 million invested with state funds.

If lawmakers can come up with the money for agricultural protection, there will also be additional federal funding available in the future. The Inflation Reduction Act allots $370 million for expenditure on energy and combating climate change, with particular funds designated for sustainable agriculture that will need state government matching.

Rhode Island’s farmland is a rare breed due to the state’s tiny size and industrial past. The lowest percentage of any state in the country—roughly 7% of the state’s total land area, or about 50,000 acres—is used for farming. At an average cost of $16,468 per acre, it is also among the most costly in the nation.

Additionally, pressure from developers is increasing on farmland as requests for more affordable housing and renewable energy installations become stronger. Farmland, like other types of green space, is particularly alluring to developers. No matter if it’s a solar farm or a housing development, developers will pay less to construct on undeveloped property, or clear, wide-open regions with few structures on them. Cheaper land translates into more profitability in the long run.

A perfect storm has formed for farmland to disappear. There has never been a better moment to sell the family farm than today, since a generation of farmers is currently thinking about retiring and property values are still at an all-time high due to the epidemic.

The ALPC was established in 1981 particularly to set aside farmland using state funds for perpetual preservation since development pressures on farms remain constant. Through its initiatives, the state has protected 8,000 acres across 124 different farms since 1985.

Farmland preserved by ALPC projects is preserved in perpetuity. The ALPC is the organization that organizes for an easement to be put on the site in perpetuity, keeping it from ever being developed land, even if the process of putting together finance for farms can grow tricky.

Additionally, maintaining farmland as such benefits the ecosystem. Wildlife may find food and shelter on well managed agriculture, which also preserves wetlands, watersheds, and air quality while reducing erosion and controlling flooding. Farmland development negates many of the environmental advantages.

The McGaw resolution was kept for more research. Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown, submitted a similar resolution, which will be discussed in Senate Finance on Thursday.

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