By David Pendered

An initiative to preserve family-owned farmland and keep it growing food in metro Atlanta has won two grants in the past month that total $5 million – one from the federal government and one from an organization launched by Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan.

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This garden near Morehouse College is not affiliated with the Working Farms Fund, but is another model for growing food in a city that’s fostered by the non-profit organization Truly Living Well. Credit: Kelly Jordan

The Conservation Fund has been working for several years to develop its Working Farms Fund, which is said to be the first of its kind in the nation. The two grants affirm the concept that’s being tested in metro Atlanta and Chicago. The Conservation Fund’s leadership hopes to expand the program into other cities.

Grants were provided by the Partnership for Inclusive Innovation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

  • The partnership on Monday announced a $250,000 grant. The money is to provide two years of operating expenses, during which the Conservation Fund is to further develop the initiative;
  • The USDA on April 26 announced a $4.8 million grant to the program from its Regional Conservation Partnership Program. This federal program is intended to foster innovative public private partnerships that focus on a set of goals that includes agriculture viability.

At its core, the Working Farms Fund is financial mechanism that intends to keep small farms producing food. It starts with the recognition that heirs of owners of small farms may be hard pressed to not sell their land for development because of the profit created by the change in land use from agriculture to residential or commercial. The Working Farms Fund hopes to provide an alternative that can make economic sense to some of these heirs.

This creative financing evidently caught the attention of the Partnership for Inclusive Innovation. The name suggests high tech projects. But it also has room to support programs that retain small farms in big urban areas, according to the lieutenant governor, who launched it in 2020 to foster Georgia’s position as the tech capital on the East Coast. Former Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson chairs the board.

Duncan said in the statement:

  • “The Georgia Working Farms Fund represents an innovative and transformative approach to how we think about the agricultural industry and food security in Georgia. Together, the Partnership for Inclusive Innovation and the Georgia Working Farms Fund are helping to advance local businesses and create thriving communities across our state.”

This is how the partnership described the concept behind the Working Farms Fund:

  • “Initially working in the 29-county metro Atlanta region, the program permanently protects at-risk farmland and creates opportunities for ambitious, diverse farmers to scale up local food production.
  • “Through conservation easements and lease-to-own options, participating farmers will benefit from the eventual ownership of their own farms with developed markets where they can sell their products.
  • “The program also aims to strengthen connections between farmers, markets and consumers, while increasing the supply of locally grown and nutritious food, thus improving the environment and health for Georgia residents.”
Truly Living Well supports this garden that grows food near Morehouse College. Credit: Kelly Jordan

Conservation easements were established by Congress to preserve land or buildings for uses including outdoor recreation, protections of habitat or protection of open space. The easements are permanent and are to be made with a charitable intent. Qualified farmers and ranchers are eligible for a special 100 percent deduction, according to IRS regulations.

This is how the Working Farms Fund was described in the USDA award:

  • “The Conservation Fund, in collaboration with six local partners, proposes to establish the first-of-its-kind program in the country, known as the Working Farms Fund.
  • “The project, based on results from a successful NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant, will permanently protect farmland across the Atlanta metropolitan foodshed and create opportunities for ambitious, diverse farmers to access affordable farms through an innovative buy-protect-sell model.
  • “Partners such as Emory University and the University of Georgia Small Business Development Center will help report on social and economic outcomes of the project, and the partnership is committed to ensuring that at least 20% of its participating farmers come from historically underserved groups.”

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written...

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