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E-M:/ Farmland Protection in the forefront

Title: PF: Man of the Year
American Farmland Trust President Ralph Grossi was recognized by Progressive Farmer as its "Man of the Year." We are extremely pleased that this national publication, with more than 100 years of reporting on the future of agriculture, is recognizing Grossi and the effort he leads - to protect our nation's and state's prime farmland. Our work in Michigan, while acknowledgably in its infancy, is gaining momentum and the AFT Regional Office in East Lansing, serving Michigan, Indiana and Ohio, is helping to move the effort forward. Preserving our state's limited natural resources will ensure a viable future for agriculture and sustainable communities for generations to come.
-- Jennifer Vincent
AFT Regional Communications

Man of the Year: Ralph E. Grossi

"We want to make it easier for local communities to protect their best farmland."

By Jim Phillips    

Today's top agribusiness headlines

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Ralph E. Grossi
Illustration By Ralph A. Mark, Jr.

When American Farmland Trust was organized just over two decades ago, the group was looked upon with some suspicion by mainstream agricultural leaders. Sure, AFT's goal was to help preserve the nation's prime farmland. But some environmental groups advocated preserving farmland through restrictive use laws that would have, in effect, robbed landowners of the full market value of their land. What's more, AFT was started as the brainchild of a Rockefeller matron with a good chunk of its seed money coming from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Rockefellers and plowing the back 40 aren't often discussed in the same conversation.

Still, the Rockefeller connection did not dissuade a young northern California dairyman from choosing to serve as a farmer-member of AFT's first advisory committee.

Ralph E. Grossi was the third generation of his family to farm and ranch the fertile and scenic Marin County hill country that lies just 30 miles across the Golden Gate from San Francisco. A 1971 graduate of California Polytechnic State University, he quickly established a record of leadership in California farm circles. In 1976, Grossi was California Farm Bureau's Outstanding Young Farmer and Rancher. By 1979, he had been elected president of the Marin County Farm Bureau.

"In 1980 [the year AFT was founded], my wife and I had just bought out the dairy from my father," recalls Grossi. "By then our farm was just at the edge of suburbia, but we didn't want to accept it as a foregone conclusion that we'd have to pick up and move out of development's way," he says.

Grossi explains that he and others in his area had begun to explore the relatively new tool of conservation easements as a way to protect Marin County's farm and ranch land. "What spurred us was the recognition that government regulation would fail to protect the landscape unless we could find a way to share the cost of protection between landowners and the public," he says.

With a conservation easement, a landowner deeds future nonagricultural development rights to a local or state government entity. In return, the government (taxpayers) pays the landowner the difference between the land's value for agricultural use and its value for nonagricultural development. At the heart of the conservation easement idea is a principle Grossi believes in. "Farmers produce real value for society beyond food and fiber," he says.

The conservation easement concept was pioneered on Long Island, N.Y., in 1974 when Suffolk County began the nation's first agricultural conservation easement program. Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easements (PACE), or as they're sometimes labeled, Purchase of Development Rights (PDR), were to become the "middle ground" on which American Farmland Trust was founded. By paying for conservation easements, the public shares the cost of preserving farmland without imposing regulations that infringe on property rights.

In 1985, the personable Grossi was asked to come to Washington, D.C., to become president and chief spokesman of AFT. He has held that job ever since.

The move to the nation's capital wasn't an easy decision for the native Californian and his family. "We knew we wanted to continue to run the farm," he says.

To do that from afar, the Grossis got out of the dairy business and changed over their operation to an Angus beef cow/calf herd. More recently, dairy replacement heifers have become an important part of the Marindale Ranch that Ralph's grandfather started in 1892.

During 16 years of Grossi's leadership, AFT has continually pressed hard to spread the message of farmland preservation. "I believe our message rings true in both the environmental and farming communities because of that middle ground we advocate between regulation and compensation," says Grossi.

AFT carries out its cause through a combination of education, research, legislative and public awareness efforts aimed at preserving productive farm and ranch land from the onslaught of urban and suburban sprawl.

The result has been an ever-increasing expansion of PACE programs throughout the country. These programs are typically state, county and even local efforts that must be championed by concerned local farmland owners and others in a state or community who recognize the need to protect farmland from urban sprawl. AFT, with a staff of 100 in a dozen regional offices, provides technical and legislative assistance to those seeking to establish PACE programs

One such group is the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation (VFBF). "We're interested in farmland preservation but want to make sure these programs don't just preserve open space. They must allow farmers to continue to farm," notes Wilmer Stoneman, senior assistant director of public affairs at VFBF.

He is concerned that some proposals, in the name of farmland protection, are actually aimed at preserving rural scenery without recognition of what it takes to operate a profitable farm. "We've seen proposed easements that would restrict the size of barns and livestock buildings to something less than would be needed to run a commercial operation," he says.

American Farmland Trust staff have been helpful in working to address those concerns of farmers in Virginia, notes Stoneman. "They've met us more than halfway, and we have a common objective on this. We have a very good working relationship with AFT," he says.

The spread of statewide PACE programs exploded in the 1990s. And today there are PACE laws on the books of 19 states from coast to coast. A combination of both state and local PACE programs now accounts for over 6,000 easements on nearly 1 million acres of farm and ranch land. More than $1.7 billion have been paid out to farmland owners in the purchase of development rights on the easements.

Grossi credits AFT's ability to work closely with mainstream agricultural groups, such as the Farm Bureau, to AFT's respect for the U.S. Constitution's Fifth Amendment, which states that government shall not take property without just compensation. "All PACE and PDR programs are a recognition that property rights exist," he says.

Over the years, AFT's efforts, which began with a focus on national legislation, have increasingly shifted to the state and local levels. A recent local success occurred in California's rich Central Valley. A 1995 AFT report outlined the threat to agricultural land coming from urban sprawl throughout the rapidly populating valley. Entitled "Alternatives for Future Urban Growth in California's Central Valley," the study developed projections on what the valley would look like in the next half-century under the current pace of urban sprawl. The report also included suggestions for more "compact" development that would save much of the area's valuable farmland.

"American Farmland Trust's Central Valley study was a catalyst for a group of agricultural leaders to recommend strategies for conserving the nation's most productive agricultural region," says Jack Pandol, a grape grower in Kern and Tulare counties and chairman of the Agricultural Task Force for the Central Valley.

One local result of that report was the creation of Fresno County's Growth Alternatives Alliance. Fresno County, even with the rapidly growing city of Fresno at its center, is still the nation's No. 1 county in value of farm production. The Alliance was formed in 1998 and consists of farmers and business leaders, the Building Industry Association of the San Joaquin Valley, the Fresno Chamber of Commerce and AFT. Their aim is to improve patterns of growth that help maintain Fresno County's agricultural heritage.

"AFT is a respected voice among farmers and is recognized as the leading organization proposing farmer-friendly solutions to the farmland conversion dilemma," says Pandol.

Says American Farm Bureau Federation Senior Environmental Specialist Don Parrish of Grossi, "He is a very good salesman." More than that, for 30 years this third-generation farmland owner, in both his home community and on the national scene, has strived tirelessly to provide reasoned leadership in the campaign to keep a significant portion of the nation's prime productive farmland from disappearing forever.

For his efforts in this work, Progressive Farmer is pleased to name Ralph E. Grossi 2002 Man of the Year in Service to Agriculture.

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First published October 2001.

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