Jamison Watts on the future of farmland conservation in Marin

David Briggs
Jamison Watts, who took over the reins from longtime director Bob Berner in late 2012, is hoping to pull funds from the state’s cap and trade revenue to fuel his organization’s continued protection of farmlands and stewardship support. 

In response to fears that West Marin’s agricultural lands would succumb to development, destroying an economy and a tradition of stewardship more than a century in the making, two women spearheaded a solution. In 1980 biologist Phyllis Faber and rancher Ellen Straus co-founded the Marin Agricultural Land Trust. The nonprofit protects ranches, farms and dairies by purchasing conservation easements from landowners that prevent the land from ever being subdivided or developed and at the same time give a financial boost to families that often use funds to strengthen their operations. 

For almost three decades, a single executive director, Robert Berner, ran the organization. He retired in 2012, and now Jamison Watts has been at the helm for a little over a year. Mr. Watts has a long background in science and environmentalism; he earned a masters degree in biological sciences and was a wildlife biologist and environmental consultant prior to heading the Northern California Regional Land Trust, where he worked for six years before coming to MALT. 

The Light sat down with Mr. Watts to talk about the intersection of environmentalism and agriculture, funding sources for easements, perceptions of MALT’s work in the community and the sustainability and adaptability of agriculture in Marin. Below is an edited version of that


Point Reyes Light: Just after you were hired, in late 2012, you said you wanted to develop environmental projects that would draw more funding for conservation easements. Has MALT pursued any projects in that vein, or are there any in the works? 


Jamison Watts: It’s not as much about developing new projects as it is better articulating how our farm-saving work benefits the natural environment. Traditionally there’s been a divide between that and commercial agriculture. More folks and researchers are now seeing the benefits of agriculture on the natural environment. We are at that intersection. We’re protecting agricultural use and in so doing, providing wildlife habitat and critical linkages. We’re providing ecosystem services like carbon sequestration and drought resilience. We’re trying to develop a clearer identity around how our work benefits the natural environment and what some of the tangible benefits are. 

It’s estimated in California that 70 percent of our most rare, threatened and endangered animals live on private land. It’s forest or agricultural land, working land. The biggest threats to biodiversity are loss and fragmentation of habitat, so it’s critical that the connections between the protected areas are maintained and restored to create a regional network of habitat and protected lands that support biodiversity, especially in response to climate change, as species adapt and change their ranges. 

We’ve been here 34 years and protected over 46,000 acres. If you look at those properties on a map, you see large continuous blocks of farmland forming. So those continuous blocks make it much more likely that agriculture will persist and that wildlife will persist in those areas. Through our stewardship program and easements, we are protecting soil and water resources and creek areas. Through our work with the Marin Carbon Project, we are creating carbon farms. Other than sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, you’re enriching the soil because you’re adding carbon to it, which improves its quality and water-retention capabilities. It gives you better forage. So there’s all these co-benefits that all tie into the health of the land.


PRL: You have said that government money for easements might begin to ebb and that you might need more to raise more from the private sector. Have you found that to be true in your first year at MALT?


JW: There is not a lot of money at the state level, but Marin voters approved Measure A in 2012 to fill that gap. That’s made a huge difference and we are submitting applications for two farmland projects that we hope to partially fund with Measure A funds. Our funding model is to raise half our funds from individual donors and we use that to leverage public-agency money. It shows the community effort that’s going on. We’ve got over 3,000 supporters. It’s a community, a family and the foundation of our work. That will remain our primary fundraising model or structure, until it doesn’t work anymore. 

On the federal side things are looking really good. The new farm bill has more than $1 billion for conservation easements over the next 10 years, with most of it coming in the next five. That’s the most a farm bill has ever had for conservation easements. 

On the state side, MALT and many of our partners are working with the California Resources Board to allocate some of their cap-and-trade revenue to farmland conservation. Assembly Bill 32 is the greenhouse gas bill that Schwarzenegger pushed and passed. It has to do with controlling polluters and emissions of greenhouse gases on an industrial level. Industry that emits these greenhouse gasses are capped and have to purchase offsets from another company that is under the cap, creating a market for carbon and greenhouse gasses with hundreds of millions of dollars that go into the state general fund. How those monies are allocated to what programs is a big question right now. There’s a group of us advocating that those funds be used for agricultural conservation. 


PRL: Some have suggested that MALT spend less time and energy on raising funds for the purchase of new easements, and put more toward supporting the continuation of agriculture on existing MALT lands. How do you balance those two things? 


JW: MALT’s mission is to protect agricultural land for agricultural use, so our fundraising efforts address protection and stewardship. The two go hand in hand. So while there may be a perception that MALT is raising funds just to acquire more easements—and we are—part of that effort is for our stewardship endowment. We have three full-time staff, all with science-based degrees. They help all of our ranchers and farmers on water development projects and rangeland management. We provide mapping services, we help with invasive weeds and improving agricultural practices that are more carbon-beneficial. We also work in partnership with several agencies in Marin County. Stewardship is the forever-ness of what we do. That’s not as talked-about, but it’s very important to me and we’re talking about it more now than we have in the past. 


PRL: In 2011, MALT added a provision to future easements to require that landowners remain in active agriculture. This arose out of a concern that people were buying up agricultural lands for estates, and would keep just a token amount of agriculture on the property. That ordinance wasn’t retroactive on former easements. Have any ranches or dairies or farms agreed to it retroactively?


JW: We haven’t done anything retroactively because we haven’t launched that part of the program, but we will later this year. We are still working through how we will administer the program. 


PRL: Will you seek special funding for it?


JW: We have a land fund strictly for agricultural conservation easements, and right now we’re talking about using some of that funding for the program. But it’s not that much, so we we’ll be seeking funding from foundations, most likely. I feel like once we launch this retroactive program and start engaging landowners on a voluntary basis, with compensation, MALT will be the first land trust in the country to do this. Others have done similar things but no one has a full [mandatory agricultural use] program. We should be able to raise money around that. 

In 1980 the threat was high-density development. Now there is a threat of estate development, where individuals come in and purchase farms and ranches and take the agriculture off. In a smaller county like Marin you have to maintain a critical mass of farms and ranches and supporting industries. They rely on each other. 


PRL: There is a new generation of young farmers who often have difficultly accessing land. Are there ways MALT can help them?


JW: I think helping them succeed is incumbent on the entire agricultural community. What is MALT’s role in that? That is the question. I think there is more we can do. We are in the process of an education workshop with the University of California Cooperative Extension where a panel of younger farmers and landowners can share their experiences working together in Marin. We have a few examples in Marin, where ranchers rent land to young row croppers. But our role isn’t consummating these relationships. It’s not the matchmaking. MALT’s role is supporting or facilitating the conversation and education. 


PRL: Do you think there are MALTed ranches with portions of underutilized land that might be available for other uses, like row crops?


JW: Marin County grows grass better than almost any county in the state. That’s why these smaller dairies are competing and sometimes outcompeting large corporate dairies in the valley. We have a longer growing season, so there is a premium for pasture. That’s the thing about Marin: there’s not enough pasture, and there’s not enough certified organic pasture. There is a high demand for just plain grass, so it doesn’t make a lot of economic sense for a lot of folks to lease 40 acres or 10 acres to a row cropper. It’s not worth the trouble. They can make that rent renting to a beef cow operator or a dairy. 

Another thing is that for row cropping you need water and good soil. The majority of land in Marin County is grazing land, with pockets of higher-quality soils. But look at the 2012 crop report from the agricultural commissioner’s office: the total production value is $80.3 million, and 76 percent of that was dairy and large livestock. Eighteen percent was row and specialty crops. Which is a pretty good number, but those are the limiting factors: quality soil and water. 


PRL: Luckily there was a lot of rain in February and March, but the drought forced many ranchers to buy expensive hay and cull herds. Do you worry about how climate change might affect agriculture? 


JW: I like to think we are taking a progressive approach in assisting landowners to be more adaptable to climate change. We do it in different ways. Our agricultural conservation easements take climate change into account through agricultural management plans. Drought is a normal occurrence in California. All these guys out here have been through droughts before. Each one is different. 2013 was the driest year on record, so it hurt a lot of folks. The folks that culled their herds and spent money on hay, those are losses they can’t get back. 

We also work with partners to provide technical and financial assistance for water development projects and range management. Our staff, the National Resources Conservation Service, the Resource Conservation District and the Cooperative Extension work together to administer water development projects, which is part of being more drought-resilient—developing more water sources. In terms of range management, we are doing things a bit differently to allow for a longer growing season, like rotational grazing. And through the Marin Carbon Project we are attempting to financially compensate and incentivize the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. When you add carbon to the soil by adding half an inch of compost to these compost farms, you sequester soil, which improves soil health, which creates more drought-resilient pastures by increasing water retention. The more carbon you have in your soil, the more water that soil holds onto, which means you’ll have greener pastures longer. This carbon farming concept—it’s the future of range management. Especially in places like California that experience drought regularly. 


PRL: In a recent interview, MALT co-founder Phyllis Faber said that despite the protections against development and ownership security that easements offer, “Whether these guys make enough to stay on the land is an entirely different matter.” She seems concerned that many might not. Are you concerned?


JW: There’s no doubt that farming is not an easy business, especially today. There’s changing economic and environmental factors, but that’s been the case since the beginning. When you’re a farmer or rancher, you know that prices will fluctuate and weather will fluctuate. I think Phyllis is justifiably concerned about those challenges. She’s absolutely right: if we’ve protected all the land and those agricultural businesses fail, what have we really accomplished?

Our vision for Marin is a thriving agricultural community in a healthy and diverse natural environment. That requires businesses that are adaptive and resilient, and that’s what we’re seeing. There is a resurgence in agriculture we couldn’t have imagined back in the ‘80s. Part of that is due to MALT’s work, because without protected farmland, you can’t plan on there being agriculture. By securing these ranches and farms with conservation easements, we are assuring they can never be subdivided and developed, and now that they will always be in active agriculture. In addition, that easement payment is capital. That’s something I’m not sure people understand. We’re talking about 40 to 50 percent of the fee value of the property. It is taxed, it’s subject to the capital gains tax. It’s used by these farmers and ranchers to strengthen their business and operations, paying off siblings and solidifying ownership, reducing debt, capitalizing the business, physical improvements to the business. 

The Strauses are an example. In part they used a conservation easement to develop the first organic dairy west of the Mississippi and the first organic creamery in the country. They did this in part because of the stability the easement gave them. The same thing with the Giacominis at Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese, right? They used the easement payment to solidify ownership and strengthen the business. And from that, in part, they developed the methane digester, a cheese-making facility and The Fork. So not only do we protect the land forever for agricultural use, we also provide capital. Still, it is a one-time deal. That funding, once it is used to capitalize the business, it’s not there. So that’s what Phyllis is getting at. 

But take the 2012 crop report for Marin. It shows the gross value of agriculture was the highest ever, at $80.3 million. That represents a 3.2 percent increase. From 2010 to 2011 there was a five percent increase. So for several years we’re seeing a positive trend. This indicates economic resilience and viability and innovation. A lot of it is the artisan cheese movement and certified organic dairies. This is one of the things happening in Marin. Another thing is that farmers are entrepreneurs. People don’t think of farmers in that way, but you must be innovative and adaptive to be successful in farming. Most of the farmers and ranchers in Marin have been doing this for a while. They are smart business people. They’ve gone organic, they’re able to compete with industrial diaries in the valley, they’re diversifying and developing value-added products, especially farmstead cheese-making—which means you make the cheese on the same property that you milk the cows. Consumers love farmstead cheese right now. They are also transitioning their operations to direct-consumer businesses, so they’re cutting out the middlemen to get it straight to the consumer. They are adapting and innovating and being entrepreneurial. And that’s the spirit of agricultural in Marin. 

One of the biggest signs that agriculture has a bright future here are kids returning to farms and ranches to continue family businesses. We’ve heard from these people that in part it’s due to the fact that their land is protected and they know it’s not going anywhere or going to be chopped up and subdivided and developed. They can bank, literally and figuratively, on that land being there. There’s no food without farms. You need the land and the people. So for those reasons I don’t see why agriculture can’t continue to thrive. I think it’s thriving right now, based on the crop report—the highest ever. Over $80 million in gross agricultural product. It’s been trending up. Those are good indicators. 


PRL: There’s still a good portion of agricultural land in Marin not under easements, but will there come a point when there will be no more land left to MALT?


JW: We will continue transitioning into more of a stewardship organization the closer we get to our goal of protecting Marin’s at-risk farmland. That transition is underway. Like I said before, stewardship is the forever-ness of what we do. Land protection is critical; we can’t do what we do without conservation easements. But that’s when the work begins. Then we support our landowners and help them be economically viable and care for the land. 

I don’t know what’s more vital than directly supporting a thriving agricultural community within a healthy functional ecosystem. To me it doesn’t get more vital than that. That’s my mantra: Economic and agricultural viability and environmental sustainability. Both those things are part of our vision for Marin. Some people think, ‘Well, what’s MALT gonna do?’ But being a good neighbor and continuing to invest in the community by working hand in hand with landowners to succeed—I don’t think it gets bigger than that.