The Northwest Arkansas Land Trust announced an expansion of its Farmland Preservation Program. A $920,000 grant will support two integrated efforts to connect farmers to land and resources and conserve vital farmland needed for growing fruits and vegetables at wholesale scale. The program is part of the Walton Family Foundation’s Northwest Arkansas Food Systems initiative.
The five-year initiative aims to support existing and new family farms, promote healthy soil farming practices, and strengthen our local food system. The grant includes $350,000 for stewardship funding to encourage farmland conservation and complement possible federal cost share programs.
The land trust’s program aims to help revitalize Northwest Arkansas’s rich fruit and vegetable farming history, increase access to locally grown foods for area residents, and generate positive economic impact. For example, according to the USDA 2017 Agricultural Census, fruit, vegetable, and nut production was limited to only 245 acres in Benton County, representing more than a 50 percent decline over five years.
While there is a renewed interest in small-scale farming in Northwest Arkansas and across the nation, many aspiring farmers cite access to land as a major barrier for them to start or scale production. According to the National Young Farmer Coalition’s 2017 survey, 61% of beginning famers reported that access to land was their biggest challenge. Barriers include lack of access to affordable land, as well as not generating enough income from the farm business to support the purchase of the land. With these challenges in mind, the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust Farmland Preservation Program aims to address these issues. Qualified farm seekers can pursue two potential paths through the program:
1. The Lease-to-Own Farmland track would allow eligible participants an opportunity to scale their production of fruits and vegetables on conserved farmland, while enjoying access to shared infrastructure and equipment as well as new markets.
2. The Purchase Conserved Farmland option is open to qualified farmers with more experience and financing who wish to identify land to farm on their own or through the NWA Land Trust, and are willing to place a conservation easement on the property for agriculture. Eligible Participants in this track may also access new markets for their produce.
Farmland owners in Benton, Carroll, Madison, and Washington counties interested in selling or leasing their property and furthering their farm legacy may participate and could possibly qualify for matching stewardship funding. Farmland eligible for stewardship funding for conservation will be evaluated on soil type and water resources as well as other factors. Conservation easements can include farming activities and may provide landowners with federal tax deductions and other financial benefits.
Farm seekers may find farming on conserved properties more viable since it aligns cost-per-acre to an agriculture versus commercial development value. Farmland conservation also permanently protects our local food shed ensuring a strong local food system for future generations. Long term lease options, and other farm tenure and transfer options are also needed to support these new family farms.
“We want to keep our community’s working lands in working hands, and these new tools will increase our ability to help existing farmers to expand, grow new farmers and save farmland,” said Susan Koehler, Farmland Preservation Manager at the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust. “We get calls frequently from farmland owners who want to help new farmers and serve the community by maintaining their property for agriculture. These new resources will enable us to better support them as well.” NWALT’s Farmland Preservation Program is part of the NWA Food Systems Initiative to support local food, increase farm viability and increase access to fruits and vegetables for residents of the region and includes the University of Arkansas, The Food Conservancy, and other agriculture focused non-profits.
The new program also complements the land trust’s NWA FARMLINK, a free website and service where farm seekers can get information and help in finding land to farm, and farmland owners receive resources about farmland transfer. Through NWA FARMLINK, participants create profiles about their goals and connect with one another. NWA FARMLINK launched in November 2019 and is currently serving 10 farm seekers and farmland owners. Nearly half of the inaugural users have reported progress toward their goals through the program, yet many are still seeking their forever farm or new opportunities for their land.
Prospective farm seekers and farmland owners interested in learning more about the Lease-to-Own or Purchase Conserved Farmland programs are encouraged to contact the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust at 479-966-4666 or email@example.com. An application process for the programs will be required and announced soon.
About the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust
Now in its 17th year, NWALT is the region’s first local and accredited land trust, dedicated to enhancing quality of life through the permanent protection of land. By holding and managing land and providing conservation easement services, the land trust protects water quality, local farms, wildlife habitat, and places for outdoor recreation while enhancing quality of life for today and future generations. The service area of the land trust includes 13 counties in Northwest Arkansas, with a core focus on Benton and Washington counties. For more information, visit the land trust’s website at www.nwalandtrust.org.