Governor signs bipartisan Georgia farmland conservation law

Gov. Brian Kemp has signed into law a new conservation program designed to curb Georgia’s loss of farmland.

The measure will create a fund and mechanism to provide a financial incentive to farmers who voluntarily place their farmland under permanent protection easement. This would restrict the landowner’s right to build on the property in the future.

“In less than a generation, we have lost 20% of our farmland in the state of Georgia. This bill is intended to solve that problem,” said the bill’s backer, Republican Senator from Cogdell Russ Goodman, a blueberry grower in South Georgia and chair of the Senate Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee.

Proponents of the measure argued that unless something is done to protect Georgia’s landscape and conserve green spaces and habitats, the trend of reducing farmland is likely to continue.

“You see this beautiful farmland out there and it’s just become unaffordable for a lot of small farmers not to be tempted to sell their land for apartment complexes or commercial space — and that really strikes a good balance,” said Rep. Robert Dickey, a Musella -Republican and peach farmer who chairs the House Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee. “It’s a great volunteer program.”

Senator Russ Goodman, a Republican from Cogdell, sponsored a bill to create a program to curb Georgia farmland loss. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Kemp traveled to Bainbridge in southwest Georgia this week to sign this and another bill establishing the Agricultural Commodity Commission for citrus, a burgeoning crop in Georgia. Both measures came with bipartisan support from the legislature this year.

“We’re also investing in our rural communities by establishing a fund that provides appropriate grants to protect farm family lands from development and sustain our state’s most important industry,” Kemp said of the conservation program.

There is currently no money for the fund in the state budget, but the measure creates the framework for a program that is accompanied by federal funding and is already running in more than half of the country.

In addition to funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state conservation fund may also receive local funding, public and private grants, gifts and donations, and proceeds from the sale of bonds and climate protection funds.

The state Department of Agriculture will administer the program and a 14-member advisory board will review the agency’s recommended recipients for one-time funding.

The bill directs the department to prioritize proposals that “protect agricultural land vulnerable to development, subdivision and fragmentation.”

According to an analysis by the Georgia Conservancy, Georgia lost approximately 2.6 million acres of crop, hay, and pasture land between 1974 and 2016.

The conservation organization has long advocated for Georgia to introduce a program called Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement (PACE) to protect otherwise uncultivated land while the state’s population grows.

“The strategic preservation of our precious farmland must remain a priority for our ever-growing state,” said Katherine Moore, president of the Georgia Conservancy.

Around 11 million people now live in Georgia. This growth has pushed people into once-rural areas of the state and has created tensions prompted the legislature to pass A controversial Freedom to Farm law was enacted last year to protect farmers from harassment lawsuits.