Water Resource Enhancement and Climate Change Mitigation Through Strategic Agricultural Land Protection, Land Access, and Land Transitions

Progress report for WPDP22-015

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2022: $99,965.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2025
Host Institution Award ID: G387-22-W9214
Grant Recipient: American Farmland Trust
Region: Western
State: California
Principal Investigator:
Kara Heckert
American Farmland Trust
Jeff Schreiber
American Farmland Trust
Stacy Shutts
American Farmland Trust
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Project Information


American Farmland Trust (AFT) will train a minimum of 40 agricultural professionals in the use of the San Joaquin Valley (SJV) Project Prioritization Tool (PPT) (https://sjvp.databasin.org/maps/c97f8b5597e24755b38716ebc207eeb9/active/) to target and prioritize conservation practices, easements and fee acquisitions, and strategic land retirement projects; implement Buy-Protect-Sell (BPS) and Option to Purchase at Agricultural Value (OPAV) projects to create affordable access to agricultural land for new and beginning farmers and ranchers; and to implement strategic land retirement and varying land management options for land retired from agriculture. Each project element will be taught to trainees within the context of water resource sustainability and climate change mitigation needs in California, focused in the geographic areas of the SJV and Southern California due to their significance to agriculture as well as relative aridity compared to other California regions. AFT will complete 8 training statewide virtual workshops; 1 which has already been completed with 6 planned for the 2024 calendar year and a wrap up webinar in early 2025. Trainings will enhance the capacity of trainees from land trusts, Resource Conservation Districts (RCD), county departments, University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE), California state agencies, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and other land protection entities to efficiently address water resource sustainability and climate change mitigation through optimized targeting of time and resources to priority sites and projects.

Project Objectives:

The project objectives are to:

  1. Build the capacity of agricultural professionals to identify, target, and prioritize agricultural lands for land protection projects that have high quality land, are at risk of land conversion, and provide high groundwater recharge potential.
  2. Build the capacity of agricultural professionals to carry out BPS and OPAV
  3. Enhance strategic and collaborative land retirement and conversions from irrigated agriculture to alternative land management options that provide water resource, soil health, agronomic, economic, wildlife, and/or social benefits.


Please find a Gantt chart uploaded.

Project activities and methodologies follow:

  1. Develop curriculum and materials for 3 training topics: 1) PPT; 2) BPS and OPAV; and 3) Strategic Land Retirement.

AFT will refine existing and create new materials and curriculum on the PPT, including technical use and how land protection staff can use it to identify and prioritize land protection project sites in the SJV in ways that optimize water resources. AFT staff will review existing National Agricultural Land Network BPS webinar curriculum and modify as needed and integrate new curriculum on OPAV projects. AFT will consult with partners in strategic land retirement, including PPIC and The Nature Conservancy, to integrate previous research into curriculum that allows trainees to explore strategic land retirement considerations, alternative land management solutions, and how regional stakeholders can collaborate in a coordinated approach.

  1. Recruit 2 cohorts of agricultural professional trainees in SJV and 2 cohorts of agricultural professional trainees in Southern California.

Trainees will be recruited from land trusts, RCDs, county departments, UCCE, California state agencies, NRCS, and other land protection entities using existing networks. It is expected that a minimum of 80 eventual trainees will be able to participate given available dates and times selected for the trainings. AFT will offer 2 trainings on some topics in each of the two project regions, to better accommodate each participating trainee’s ability to participate in each training session. Prospective trainees from regions other than the SJV or Southern California will be welcome to participate as space allows, as topic concepts are applicable to other regions. AFT will cap space for each training session at 15 participants to ensure trainers are able to effectively train each participant with due attention.

  1. Train trainees.

AFT will train trainees on each of the 3 training topics in the SJV: PPT, BPS and OPAV, and strategic land retirement. Given that the PPT is only applicable to the SJV, AFT will exclude this training for Southern California trainees. AFT will administer Western SARE’s pre-approved survey at the end of each training as well as online post-surveys with trainees six months after each training to ask participants about their level of application of the trainings they received and ongoing support needed to successfully implement what they learned. AFT will provide ad hoc continued support to trainees as requested and allowed by the project budget.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Cris Coffin (Educator)
  • Jerry Cosgrove (Educator)
  • Teresa O’Connor (Educator)
  • Alison Volk (Researcher)


Educational approach:

American Farmland Trust (AFT) will be using a workshop model for its educational approach. AFT completed the first training on soil health on eased lands in April of 2023. AFT has been planning a three-part workshop series to be delivered twice in 2024, with the first workshop of the series to be held on February 27, 2024. During this reporting period (Jan 2024 report), AFT has been drafting the workshop curriculum and planning logistics with speakers, outreach to potential participants, role delegation, and pre-workshop rehearsal. The workshop will focus on multi-benefit land repurposing with conservation planners, irrigation districts, land trusts, and other stakeholders. The workshop will also include an overview of AFT and Conservation Biology Institute’s (CBI) San Joaquin Valley Project Prioritization Tool (PPT) to show how this dynamic interactive online mapping tool can be used to view different combinations of map layers to help plan out multi-benefit land projects. The workshop will also demonstrate how AFT used the PPT to implement and conservation easement project so that trainees can see how it can be used in practice and likewise leverage the tool to enhance their own conservation work. Guest speaker, Vicky Espinoza, will also provide an example of a multi-benefit land repurposing project in California’s Tulare County with The Nature Conservancy for the purposes of groundwater sustainability and included land repurposing to solar development, less water intensive agriculture, habitat restoration, and floodplain restoration.

A second and third workshops of the series are also being planned for May and July of 2024 and will focus on the topic of Buy-Protect-Sell (BPS), Option to Purchase at Agricultural Value (OPAV), and other conservation easement projects that include affordability covenants. The workshop will include speakers representing Jefferson Land Trust from Jefferson County in Washington State to speak on their experience carrying out BPS projects; California FarmLink, who provides affordable loans to new and disadvantaged producers and will speak on the topic of alternative financing options and affordability mechanisms for land access; Colorado Open Lands to speak on their experience using easements as a tool for groundwater sustainability; and AFT to speak on federal policy and mechanisms within the Farm Bill that will assist in carrying out BPS and OPAV easement projects.

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Project Prioritization Tool

Increase awareness of, knowledge of how to use, and practical use of AFT and Conservation Biology Institute’s San Joaquin Valley Project Prioritization Tool (PPT) in order to optimize conservation resources towards acquisition projects that increase groundwater recharge potential on quality agricultural lands at risk of development as well as projects that achieve additional conservation goals of PPT users.


AFT is training agricultural and conservation professionals in the use of the PPT so that they may adopt use of the tool to achieve their conservation goals, with an emphasis on use to enhance water resources.

Outcomes and impacts:

Trainees are learning about the PPT, what it can be used for, and how to use it for their purposes. Trainees receive emphasized instruction on how to use the PPT to target acquisition projects that can provide groundwater recharge benefits. The impact of this initiative will be that additional agricultural and conservation professionals will be able to better use easements and acquisition projects as a means to enhance water resources and increase their efficient use of limited time and funding resources to do so. Trainees will receive a demonstration of how AFT has used the PPT to carry out an agricultural conservation easement project with natural resource and habitat conservation benefits in addition to agricultural land preservation.

Buy-Protect-Sell and Option to Purchase at Agricultural Value

Increase knowledge amongst land protection professionals on how to effectively carry out Buy-Protect-Sell (BPS) and Option to Purchase at Agricultural Value (OPAV) projects.


Trainees will receive instruction on recognizing and taking advantage of opportunities to carry out BPS and/or OPAV projects. They will receive in depth knowledge of different methods and best practices for carrying out both approaches.

Outcomes and impacts:

Trainees will be equipped with technical resources to carry out BPS and OPAV projects. The impact of this initiative is that additional professionals in the field will be able to serve the needs of landowners and land seekers by providing potential acquisition terms and approaches that allow for financial sustainability and increase land affordability for those seeking land tenure. Trainees will also learn how the producers they work with can access affordable loans that they may need in order to successfully access land through BPS and/or OPAV projects, or otherwise without a BPS/OPAV deal involved. Trainees will also learn about mechanisms within federal and state acquisition programs that can aid in their carrying out of BPS and/or OPAV projects.

Strategic Land Retirement

Increase knowledge and effective collaboration amongst stakeholders on agricultural land retirement that is strategic in enhancing natural resources, keeping the best viable lands in production, prevents land abandonment and subsequent environmental and health issues (e.g. dust and air pollution; invasive plant encroachment, etc.), and provides ecosystem services (e.g. biodiversity benefits, carbon sequestration, etc.).


Trainees will become familiar with the current state of strategic land retirement efforts, when and why to take a strategic land retirement approach, methods for carrying out retirement of lands, and how to best work with existing strategic land retirement stakeholders to ensure mutual goals are being achieved and efforts are complementary and not duplicative. 

Outcomes and impacts:

Additional agricultural and conservation professionals will be able to effectively carry out strategic land retirement projects in the field and understand the intricacies of these projects and how to best collaborate with stakeholders. The impact of this initiative is that stakeholders will be better able to ensure inevitable land retirement, due to water resource shortages, will occur more proportionally on agricultural lands of marginal value and that retired lands can be repurposed for other beneficial uses. Trainees will also learn how to make good use of, and access, funding resources that specifically target projects for strategic land retirement, such as the California Department of Conservation’s Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program.

Educational & Outreach Activities

2 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Online trainings
1 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

36 Nonprofit

Learning Outcomes

36 Participants gained or increased knowledge, skills and/or attitudes about sustainable agriculture topics, practices, strategies, approaches
32 Ag professionals intend to use knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness learned

Project Outcomes

2 Grants received that built upon this project
4 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

The First Training Soil Health Stewards: Promoting Soil Health on Protected Agricultural Land, was held April 23-27th, 2023. Conducted by the National Agricultural Land Network with over 20 AFT technical staff and farmer and technical partners and 36 land trust attendees. Materials included the Soil Health Steward Training Discussion Guide and Soil Health Stewards Action Plan Template. Topics included: Getting Started with Soil Health: Basics and Benefits, Engaging Landowners Around Soil Health, Soil Health: Basics, Benefits, Practices, & Barriers, Soil Health: Economic Benefits, Working with Diverse Owners and Operators, Take your Soil to the Doctor: Soil Health Assessments, Advancing Soil Health Through Agricultural Conservation Easements and Conservation or Management Plans, Connecting Landowners to NRCS Financial Assistance, Soil Health Stewardship – Developing A Sustainable Action Plan, Water Scarcity and Soil Health.

36 Agricultural service provider participants who used knowledge and skills learned through this project (or incorporated project materials) in their educational activities, services, information products and/or tools for farmers

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.