Commentary: Leveraging Farmland to Combat Climate Change

by Jimmy Daukas, Senior Program Officer, American Farmland Trust

America’s climate is changing and no group will be impacted more than the nation’s farmers and ranchers. Between disease, pests, wildfires, floods, drought and increasingly severe weather patterns, each growing season seems to come with more challenges than the last.

Climate change undermines the ability of America’s farmers to grow food in a productive and environmentally sustainable way. At the same time, researchers are concluding that simply reducing emissions of greenhouse gases is not enough to reduce the damage humans have already caused to the environment.

To be successful at addressing climate change, we need to actually draw down carbon from the air – something our nation’s farmland is uniquely suited to do. When farmers use practices such as cover crops, no-till, rotational grazing, etc. they are encouraging their land to serve as a sink, sequestering carbon in the soil.

Unfortunately, we are converting farmland at an alarming rate. The American Farmland Trust’s groundbreaking report Farms Under Threat: The State of America’s Farmland released in 2018 found that between 1992 and 2012, 31 million acres of farmland in the U.S. disappeared. That’s 175 acres an hour, or three acres every single minute. When farmland is lost to real estate development, it loses its ability to help in the fight against climate change.

That’s why American Farmland Trust (AFT) launched its Farmers Combat Climate Change initiative in 2018. Through proven strategies, AFT is helping to accelerate use of climate-smart farming practices and making the case for farmland protection as an effective, cost-efficient climate change mitigation tool.  

Our strategies include:

  • Harnessing the ability of agriculture to combat climate change. A lot of people don’t realize it, but farmland is a one-of-a-kind tool in the fight against climate change. Farmers and ranchers manage more than 50 percent of the land in America – land that can absorb vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, storing it in plants and soil. No other strategy to combat climate change yields so many benefits we want and need for a sustainable future, like abundant food, clean water, healthy soil and resilient landscapes. The solutions are relatively straightforward:  protect the land and improve the soil.
  • Protecting farmland and promoting smart growth development. The next phase of AFT’s Farms Under Threat project is to identify and map the threats – including development pressure, water availability, predicted climate shifts, and more – to the best U.S. agricultural land. As we gather data, AFT is working with state and local partners to protect and steer development away from this land. AFT also is expanding its pioneering climate research (see past reports from New York and California) that quantifies the GHG reduction potential of farmland protection and smart growth. This strategy, promoted by AFT, has already been used successfully in state climate plans like the Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation program in California – the first in the country that links the protection of agricultural lands to climate change mitigation.
  • Improving soil health to reverse climate change and improve productivity. While adoption is increasing, there are still barriers to more widespread implementation of conservation practices on farmland.  AFT is testing new tools that quantify the potential of soil health improvements, conducting research to better understand how to increase conservation on rented farmland, and expanding training to improve soil health.

It’s not too late to protect America’s farmland and the climate benefits well-managed land can provide. The time is now. Join usLearn more at

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