One of the most distressing trends taking place in the United States in recent years has been the rapid depletion of the nation’s most productive agricultural lands. The American Farmland Trust (AFT) was organized in 1980 to deal with problems posed by this attrition, and one of AFT’s early projects was given its initial funding by the Foundation. This was an effort to preserve the beautiful farmlands in Pleasant Valley, Vermont. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a major supporter of AFT has this to say about the Pleasant Valley project in its 1983 annual report:
The confidence that AFT’s “middleground” philosophy has earned it resulted in an extraordinary contribution to the organization, a 390-acre Vermont dairy farm located in the very heart of a fertile, picture postcard valley that has supported agriculture since the birth of the Republic, but a region now under development pressure generated by a nearby city and by several ski resort communities. Inspired by the generosity of the donors, the AFT accepted the challenge of preserving the entire Pleasant Valley for agriculture, a project that will require all the ingenuity and resources the organization can muster. With support from a New England Foundation [the Conservation and Research Foundation], the AFT recently completed the first step, a comprehensive inventory of the agricultural land resources of the valley, including surveys of the ownership patterns. Its staff has now begun to work with individual landowners to devise private conservation strategies to assure that each working farm can remain economically viable and that the land on which agriculture depends will be protected in perpetuity. Proceeds from the sale of Sugar Bush Farm, to a family that continues to operate it, will be plowed back into the valley to help finance private farmland conservation transactions. Meanwhile, with AFT encouragement and technical assistance, Vermont officials are examining a range of potential governmental programs that could be applied to save Pleasant Valley farms, and would become a model for a statewide agricultural land conservation program. The AFT annual report perhaps sums up best the organization’s optimistic expectations: “from a single seed, a bumper crop is in prospect.”
In Massachusetts, the Franklin Land Trust is working to preserve farms in the Connecticut River Valley, just west of the river and south of the Vermont border, by protecting them with easements. The viability of farms is obviously dependent upon a suitable outlet for their produce. The Trust initiated an innovative program of “saving rural landscapes by buying farm products.” Seven farms that are preserving 1,800 acres in the area are presently marketing maple products, timber, potatoes, orchard fruits, goats, horses, beef, sheep, wool, woolen goods, and tourist attractions. David Morine bought Elmer’s Store in Ashfield and generously made it available to the Trust as an outlet for local farm produce. As a philanthropic enterprise, all profits from the store are used to promote the Trust’s land preservation program. The Foundation made a seed grant to help the Trust get this enterprise under way.
Another agriculture conservation project involved the High Desert Research Farm, a program of the Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, New Mexico dedicated to the needs of farmers in arid and highland regions. Often characterized by low or seasonal rainfall, a short growing season, or poor soil, these are the marginal farming areas across the world. The overwhelming majority of the world’s hungry live in these areas. The top priority of the High Desert Research Farm was the rescue, conservation and redistribution of the endangered genetic diversity of crop plants for these marginal areas. The staff feels that the best solution is to find people to grow these resources for the nutritional and economic benefit of their families and communities. In 1991 the Foundation made a grant in support of the Farm’s operation.
CRF has also been involved in support agriculture conservation education efforts. In 1983 the Foundation made a grant to The Mountain School to help Eliot Coleman, an expert organic gardner in charge of the farm at the school, to write The New Organic Grower,a book on how to grow food for schools and other institutions.
In the eastern U.S., dairy farms in New England have been having a difficult time and are being abandoned at an alarming rate. This is most unfortunate as they are not only an important source of food, but also serve to preserve open space and the quality of our suburban environment. In 1987 the Sunny Valley Foundation convened a Small Dairy Farm Management Conference in Litchfield, Connecticut. In Europe, new grassland-based systems have been developed which offer the small farm operator unanticipated opportunities to remain competitive. Several leading experts were brought over to discuss management problems with their counterparts in this country. The Foundation funded the publication of the proceedings of this conference.
Other grants have been directed toward improved methods of controlling insect pests, thereby reducing the use of pesticides that pose hazards to the environment and human health. Projects include: control in Mexico of the corn leafhopper, the vector of three diseases of maize; control on the island of Dominica of the white fly, a major pest of vegetable crops; and in Nicaragua, control of the fall army worm, the most important pest of maize in that country.
Sometimes small grants have big ripple effects. A good example is the last mentioned project. In 1986 a grant of $510 was awarded to Allan J. Hruska to provide supplies and equipment to a group of researchers at the Instituto Superior de Ciencias Agropeucarias. In a letter received eight years later, Dr. Hruska wrote that this grant had been “seed money that reaped large returns.” The year after the Foundation’s grant had been received, the Norwegian government funded a full 2.5 year proposal for integrated pest management (IPM). Subsequently the Nicaraguan professors continued the work at a reduced pace. Over twenty students completed theses and four faculty members completed research within the project. The work has been documented by six research papers, ten reports and three popular articles. Based on the promising results obtained, CARE Nicaragua initiated a project under Dr. Hruska’s direction to implement an IPM project in northwestern Nicaragua. This has been very successful. Pesticide use has been reduced by 80% among farmers who received IPM training. This has resulted in significantly increased net returns to the farmers and pesticide poisonings and exposures to toxic chemicals have been dramatically reduced. Many of the students have gone on to pursue careers in plant protection in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. One of the staff members involved with the project has become Dean of the Department of Agronomy at the University, another became Vice-Rector and a third, now married to Dr. Hruska, is an advisor to the IPM Program at the National University in Leon.