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
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,"
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
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
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
"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.