The (Sustainable) Farm-Friendly Communities Certification Program
The (Sustainable) Farm-Friendly Community Certification Program is a collaboration of the Lyson Center for Civic Agriculture and Food Systems, the American Farmland Trust, Inc., and the North American Food Systems Network. A community training and certification program is needed to fill the vast gap in knowledge on how communities can engage with farmers, farms, and farmland to improve local quality of life. Farms in the most urban counties produce a significant proportion of the food we eat in the United States (based on market value): 91 percent of fruits, nuts and berries; 77 percent of vegetables; 68 percent of dairy and 55 percent of poultry and eggs (see citation below). Yet urban communities may not even be aware they are stewards of the finite and fragile natural resources they depend on for this food. They may not understand the benefits of local farms and food, and need motivation to take meaningful action. Still other communities regrettably have no interest in protecting and celebrating what remains of their local farm and food system. For these communities, farming and food production are simply a transitional land use to some other perceived “highest and best use."
On the other hand, a small but growing number of communities around the U.S. have expressed concern about the decline of farmers, farms, and farmland; the long-term sustainability of agriculture; food security; and the benefits these things bring now and in the future. However, they simply do not know how to go about making the most of what they have.
What many communities such as counties and municipalities don’t realize is that they, in fact, already have the legal authority to foster a verdant agricultural landscape, sustainable agriculture, and vibrant local food economy. Our capacity-building farm enterprise retention and expansion approach is to provide the tools to envision a future that meets their goals, the metrics to measure progress through benchmarks, and a means of celebrating that progress.
The (Sustainable) Farm-Friendly Communities Certification Program borrows features developed by Business Retention and Expansion International (BREI) and the League of American Bicyclists’ Bicycle Friendly Communities certification program, which has offered to provide technical assistance. Applicant communities receive points for engaging in "best practices" such as progressive policies, programs, and public investments, from passing farm-friendly ordinances to passing a resolution to support a farm and food policy council. Criteria for receiving certification will be flexible and developed to accommodate the diverse needs of communities: urban or rural, town or county, home rule or Dillon’s rule, etc. Communities will be assigned to one of four classifications based on the number of points earned: Platinum, Gold, Silver, or Honorable Mention. Ongoing training and TA will be available to encourage reaching higher classifications over time.
Certified communities will receive (a) highway signage and other promotional materials, (b) national social media promotion, and (c) the opportunity to join a community of practice to share local policy innovations. They will also have access to an online dashboard that includes program metrics to monitor their progress and identify gaps in programming. We expect certification will help communities leverage other resources in support of working landscapes and a thriving local farm economy.
To sustain the program after the Kaplan-supported pilot phase, we will pursue creative funding models such as underwriting from progressive food and agriculture businesses. The Bicycle-Friendly Communities program, for example, is supported by a $1.5 million annual donation from the Trek Bicycle Company.
Community Certification Process and Criteria
The scope and procedural details for becoming a certified (Sustainable) Farm-Friendly Community will be developed early in our project using a “search conference” that engages staff, advisors, and stakeholders in a series of process activities exploring shared values, vision, mission, and goals. A preliminary community certification process is outlined here.
STEP 1. Interested communities complete an online prequalification self-test (required, using a low threshold and a self-reporting honor system). If the test score qualifies the community, they are given access to an online dashboard that they use to to complete the online application, upload documents, and track their progress during the certification process and beyond.
STEP 2. Community forms a Leadership Team to oversee the application process. The leadership team could be part of an existing local government commission or taskforce, a nonprofit organization, a farm group, etc., as long as it has a diverse representation of stakeholders (including at least 4 farmers) and local government support. It is critical that members of the leadership team be residents who are thoughtful and influential in the community.
STEP 3. Year-round training is offered to applicant communities through webinars and self-paced modules available through their dashboard. The online application includes a thorough inventory of existing best practices. Attachments uploaded via the dashboard include an affidavit by a local government official testifying to the accuracy of the information.
STEP 4. Under consideration (and given the availability of resources after the Kaplan-funded pilot) is having a circuit-riding staff member who could conduct site visits and/or provide training and technical assistance to applicant communities at various national community development conferences.
STEP 5. The review process conducted by program staff and ad hoc experts could include reviewing best practices that are (a) existing, (b) under development, and (3) officially proposed by communities (with different point levels for each). Following the approximately 6-week review process, notification of the certification review outcome is made by email and mail and includes a certificate and proclamation.
STEP 6. Upon certification, the community holds a press conference or other media event to publicly announce the certification award and have the proclamation signed by local dignitaries. Signage may be posted at community entrances. We will make an annual announcement of communities that have become certified and provide them with press packets to help them do additional promotion.
STEP 7. Certified communities will continue use their dashboard for tracking their progress, checking off new best practices, and viewing metrics and announcements for webinar training and technical assistance.
ONGOING. Certified communities’ initial scores will be published and ranked on the project website. Re-ranking could be automatic or calculated periodically. Communities can increase their score or ranking over time by checking off new best practices they have undertaken. A local agency or organization will serve as a dedicated contact and sponsor responsible for maintaining the certification.
Sample Best Practices Inventory for Certification
Recognizing that there are cultural and geographic differences in communities and that no one-size-fits-all nor single simple solution exists, we propose to create a variety of farm retention and expansion strategies that can be adopted or adapted according to local vision and circumstances. The following are examples (rather than an exhaustive list) of practices for which communities might receive points. We may use a weighting system to adjust for community differences. We expect most of the best practices are local government-based, but we may also explore including best practices the private/nonprofit sector may bring to the table, such a land trusts, food hubs, and the like.
Potential Best Practices
1. Best Practices in Land Use
• Agricultural zoning or agricultural districts
• Current use taxation
• Allow accessory uses (e.g., on-farm processing, retailing, agritourism, energy production, small engine repair)
• Farmland protection board
• Progressive right-to-farm ordinance
• Farmland mitigation ordinance
• Conservation easement program
• Impact fees and development transfer fees
• Sustainable agriculture programming (including organic)
2. Best Practices in Ag. Economic Development
• Agricultural housing exemption
• Buy local campaign
• New farmer program
• Farm-to-institution program
• Farm recruitment program
• Agriculture development specialist
• Farm supply business retention and expansion program
• Risk management program
3. Best Practices in Ag.-Based Community Development
• Agritourism (e.g., county fair, or farm or processing plant tours)
• At least one full-time family farmer on county board
• Agriculture and food systems topics in local school curriculum
• Farm-neighbor relations (conflict mitigation program)
• Food security assessment conducted
• Local farm and food policy council
Short-term changes will be nominal, but nonetheless critical to the process, including:
• Substantial increased public awareness, celebration, and pride;
• Action steps such as creating a farm-community day or a local farm and food policy council; and
• The adoption of new best practices for pursuing even greater excellence in developing a vibrant and sustainable local farm and food community.
Long-term changes will take some time to become measurable, but we plan to help communities measure progress through key leverage indicators from the Census of Agriculture and a biennial panel survey of key local stakeholders (farm leaders, nonprofit and agency heads, public officials, etc.). Indicators and sources of the data might include:
• A reversal in the rate of decline of active farms, number of farmers, and farmland (planning department assessment, tax assessor data);
• Increased farm income (Census of Agriculture);
• Increased conservation practices (Census of Agriculture);
• Increased organic production (Census of Agriculture);
• More production of food for local consumption (Census of Agriculture);
• More local food consumed by residents (Census of Agriculture and Dept. of Commerce food consumption data);
• More local food purchased by public institutions (such as schools and hospitals) (biennial survey);
• More farm capital investments made on farms (biennial survey); and
• Higher perceived quality of life as reported by stakeholders (biennial survey).
VISION IN THREE YEARS
We envision the (Sustainable) Farm-Friendly Community Certification Program scaling up to become a national program adopted and administered by the North American Food Systems Network (NAFSN). NAFSN, as described earlier, is another project being spearheaded by the Lyson Center. By the end of our three-year award period we will have:
• Worked with 4 to 6 communities across different geographies and demographics as pilot projects in the Northeast to conceptualize, develop, and refine (Sustainable) Farm-Friendly Community Certification Program;
• Obtained buy-in from financial sponsor(s) who commit to providing ongoing support; and
• Transitioned administration of the (Sustainable) Farm-Friendly Community Certification Program to the North American Food Systems Network, which will promote the program to other regions such as northern California and the Pacific Northwest, where there is high farm loss but also great interest in local food and agriculture.
Gradually but steadily the program will become nationwide, targeting more challenging communities for certification (especially those in limited-resource communities in more traditional agricultural production areas).