Working Lands – Agriculture

Generally synonymous with farmland or cropland, agricultural land is typically devoted to the systematic propagation of livestock and production of crops—to produce food and associated goods.  

Characteristics of Agricultural Lands

Agricultural lands feed, clothe, and employ millions of Americans each year. The USDA reports that agriculture and its related industries account for 4.8 percent of the country’s gross domestic product and 9.2 percent of its jobs. As global population moves towards surpassing 9.6 billion by 2050, it is increasingly crucial to maintain, and perhaps, increase the productivity of farmland resources. And yet, based on data from American Farmland Trust’s report Farms Under Threat, the United States lost nearly three acres of farmland per minute between 1992 and 2012. Land trusts are uniquely positioned to address these issues by preserving the productivity of their existing farmland holdings.

Challenges Presented by Climate Change to Working Agricultural Lands

Agricultural land in the U.S. was largely established based on the climatic and geographic characteristics of specific regions; characteristics that are now changing, and will likely continue to change. Despite changing growing conditions, farmers have long adapted growing practices accordingly to maintain agricultural productivity and continue to do so. Farmers shift planting and harvesting schedules, adopt new technologies, and integrate alternative management schemes into practice. As global climate fluctuates to greater extents, it drives more extreme climate fluctuations locally, making it more difficult to both anticipate and adapt to such variations on an annual basis.

Climate change and its impacts present new adaptation challenges for farmers as well as land trusts and conservation groups dedicated to preserving these working landscapes. From the produce cornucopia of California’s Central Valley to the bread basket of the Midwest, alterations in life cycle events, health, stress, and the overall productivity of both crop and livestock-based agriculture are already impacted by climate change. Specific climate change impacts vary and will likely continue to vary by region. For example, changes in weather patterns will increase water availability in some regions, while limiting soil-moisture in others.

Without time to adequately adapt, farmers are left to rely on supplemental inputs (water, fertilizers, etc.). While such inputs may help meet crop yield demands in the short-term, they may also leverage adverse stress on ecological and human health systems in the long-term. Farmers and land trusts are working together to identify vulnerabilities to current and future change in an effort to reduce risks and enhance the resilience of working agricultural lands – doing so, will help communities preserve essential social, economic, and ecological functions of these landscapes.

Best Management Practices: What Land Trusts Are Doing

Land Trusts across the country are innovating to respond to climate change and its implications. The Marin Agricultural Land Trust, in partnership with other actors, has established the Marin Carbon Project, as a way to “farm carbon,” on rangeland, increasing carbon stocks in soil, mitigating climate change, and providing an additional income stream for farmers. American Farmland Trust is also piloting the monetization of ecosystem services as a way for farmers to get compensated for the environmental benefits their land provides which offset the effects of climate change. California FarmLink works to avoid conversion of farms and supports implementation of efficient and low-impact management practices. Additionally, the Vermont Land Trust encourages establishment of pollinator habitat on its holdings to support native pollinators that are sensitive to climatic changes. More agricultural case studies coming soon. Have a story to share? Contact us here

There are many angles from which to approach climate change and its implications. Actions to prevent further climate change, such as increasing carbon stocks in soil, managing nutrient runoff or finding renewable energy sources to power farm operations are just as important as actions to respond to the impacts of climate change. Farmers and land trusts may be facing more immediate pressures to adapt to both existing and future changes.

Learn More

– Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change, NAP

– Agriculture, US Global Climate Change Research Center

– Agriculture and Food Supply, EPA

Agricultural Working Lands: Meeting the Needs of Spring-migrating Waterfowl, USDA

Animal Agriculture in a Changing Climate, USDA / NIFA

– Climate Change Adaptation, USDA

– “Climate-Smart” Agriculture: Policies, Practices and Financing for Food Security, Adaptation and Mitigation, FAO

Farming Success in an Uncertain Climate, Cornell Cooperative Extension

– Working Lands, USFS

– Working Lands for Wildlife, USDA