Robust, reliable funding for conservation easement programs is essential to our economy, our food supply and our way of life.
Florida agriculture forms the basis for our economy, food security, open spaces, wildlife and water. Securing the future of our rural land and its resources means protecting it from development and ensuring that agriculture remains a viable land use.
At our current pace of development, Florida is converting more than 120 acres every day from ranchlands and pine forests to rooftops and roads. There are entire swaths of the state that were once productive, rolling hills of citrus groves and cattle ranches, but are now endless, zero-lot-line housing developments. One hundred twenty acres per day roughly equals 45,000 acres a year that we lose from agricultural production to sprawling growth.
A recent agricultural report peering into Florida’s agricultural future notes the critical relationship between agricultural lands and conservation lands, and how necessary each is to providing ecosystem services, wildlife protection and buffers between urban areas.
Florida’s long-term conservation strategy always contemplated preserving both natural areas and agricultural lands as a balance to the acres that get developed. Unfortunately, we are falling behind in those conservation goals simply due to the pace of land conversion.
Agricultural land that is not protected by conservation means that we risk losing local food and fiber production, as well as the lands’ many ecological values. Much of the unprotected wetlands and floodplains in Florida occur on agricultural land and provide essential water and flood protection as well as wildlife habitat. Only 15.8% of the state’s agricultural land is currently in some type of protected status, primarily through conservation easements (land stays in private ownership but development is prohibited). Those conservation easements allow ongoing agricultural operations but keep the land out of the path of development. If we don’t act quickly to conserve more rural areas now, more than 2.2 million acres of agricultural land will be lost to development by 2070.
One of the most important ways to protect our agricultural lands is through conservation easements with the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program and the Florida Forever Program. These nationally acclaimed state programs depend on annual funding from the Florida Legislature, so the level of funding is never assured. We must remember that our agricultural lands are the bedrock of our economy, our food supply, and our way of life. Robust, reliable funding for these programs must be provided to secure a healthy, viable and livable future for us all.
Photo by Katie Bryden/Wildpath