This week we started mowing the land that we have in a conservation program.
Half of the farm is in the Maremma Regional Park, and about 250 acres of our park land are in a conservation program.
How the Program Works
Through the program – called the “set-aside” program – the European Union pays farmers to not produce on certain land.
Policymakers created the program about 20 years ago to remove marginal lands from production and improve conservation efforts on agricultural land.
At the time, farmers entered into 20-year contracts with the E.U. and were required to mow the “set-aside” land once a year after a certain date (we can mow after July 31). Growing crops, grazing animals, or making hay on the set-aside land was prohibited.
For every year that the land was enrolled in the program and the requirements respected, farmers would receive a payment.
Why We Have Land in the Program
The land we have enrolled in the program used to be cropland and grazing land.
For the past 20 years, instead of growing crops or grazing animals, we have simply allowed plants to grow and we mow once a year.
When there was the opportunity to participate in the program, it seemed like a good option for those 250 acres.
They are acres in the park, and deer and wild boar roam freely. The land is also close to protected marshland and the beach, so there is a lot of salt that infiltrates the soil. Additionally, there are many trees in the fields that – while they make for a beautiful landscape – can become a nuisance in crop production.
The payment for not producing was high enough to cover any maintenance and mowing costs, as well as foregone income.
So we decided to enroll.
Similar Program in the U.S.
The equivalent program in the U.S. is the Conservation Reserve Program, an easement program that allows farmers to receive payments for not producing on environmentally sensitive and marginal agricultural lands.
While the programs are similar, there are some important differences, including the length of the contracts and the options for contract renewal.
The Future of Our Conservation Land
We are in the final year of our set-aside contract, and unfortunately there is not an option for renewal.
Over the past 20 years, agricultural policies for supporting conservation have shifted. Whereas 20 years ago policymakers were interested in removing land from production, today the focus is more on sustainable production and incorporating conservation practices into agricultural production.
Starting this fall, we will be able to cultivate the land again.
I am looking into a variety of options for what to do with the land, but the decisions are not easy. The land has not been cultivated for 20 years, and cultivating it would mean losing some of the conservation benefits that have accumulated.
The wildlife pressure is such that it doesn’t make sense to plant grains like we do on other land, and all of the infrastructure – from fencing to water to roads and ditches – would have to be redone. Economically, it doesn’t make sense to make that investment if the crops are going to be damaged by wildlife.
The land could return to pasture and grazing land, but in order to justify the investment, we would have to significantly increase the herd size.
The ideal would be to find a way to keep the land out of production and continue to manage it for conservation goals. If anyone has any ideas, please let me know!
— Ariane Lotti