by Jill Nolin, Georgia Recorder
Gov. Brian Kemp has signed off on a new conservation program that is meant to stem the loss of farmland in Georgia.
The measure creates a fund and a process for providing a financial incentive to farmers who volunteer to permanently place their agricultural land in a conservation easement. Doing so would restrict the landowner’s right to develop the property in the future.
“In less than a generation, we’ve lost 20% of our farmland in the state of Georgia. This bill seeks to address that,” said the bill’s sponsor, Cogdell Republican Sen. Russ Goodman, who is a blueberry farmer in south Georgia and chair of the Senate Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee.
Proponents of the measure argued that the trend of declining agricultural acreage is likely to continue if something isn’t done to protect Georgia’s countryside, preserving green spaces and habitat.
“You see this beautiful farmland out there and it’s just gotten prohibitive for a lot of small farmers to not be tempted to develop – sell their land for apartment complexes, commercial – and this just really keeps a great balance,” said Rep. Robert Dickey, a Musella Republican and peach farmer who chairs the House Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee. “It’s a great volunteer program.”
Kemp traveled to Bainbridge in southwest Georgia this week to sign this bill and another creating the Agricultural Commodity Commission for Citrus Fruits, which represents a burgeoning crop in Georgia. Both measures sailed through the Legislature this year with bipartisan support.
“We are also investing in our rural communities by creating a fund that will provide matching grants to protect the land of farming families from development and preserve our state’s No.1 industry,” Kemp said of the conservation program.
There is no money right now in the state budget for the fund, but the measure creates the framework for a program that comes with a federal boost and is already in more than half the country.
In addition to funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state’s conservation fund can also receive local funding, public and private grants, gifts and donations, and proceeds from the sale of bonds and mitigation funds.
The state Department of Agriculture will administer the program, and a 14-member advisory council will review the agency’s recommended recipients for the one-time funding.
The bill directs the department to prioritize proposals that “protect agricultural lands susceptible to development, subdivision, and fragmentation.”
Georgia has lost about 2.6 million acres of crop, hay and pastureland from 1974 to 2016, according to analysis from the Georgia Conservancy.
The conservation organization has long advocated for Georgia to create the program, which is called a Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement (PACE) program, to protect otherwise undeveloped land as the state’s population swells.
“The strategic conservation of our precious farmlands must remain a priority for our ever-growing state,” said Katherine Moore, president of the Georgia Conservancy.
About 11 million people now live in Georgia. That growth has pushed people out into once rural areas of the state and created a tension that drove lawmakers to pass a controversial “freedom to farm” law last year meant to shield agricultural producers from nuisance lawsuits.
This story was written by Jill Nolin, a reporter at the Georgia Recorder, where this story first appeared.
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