USDA awards Emory-Conservation Fund partnership, the Working Farms Fund, $4.8 million

May 6, 2021

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Farmers from the Georgia Korean-American Farmers Association are among those collaborating with The Working Farms Fund to acquire land to grow their businesses. Photo by Stacy Funderburke/The Conservation Fund.

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The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has awarded $4.8 million to the Working Farms Fund to boost support for next-generation farmers in Georgia and create a more resilient food system across metro Atlanta. The Working Farms Fund, an initiative supported by a first-of-its-kind partnership between The Conservation Fund and Emory University, acquires and permanently protects farmland, helping farmers who would not have the means to purchase the land at full market price.

Building on a previous USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service grant, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) award will provide easement funding and technical assistance for the Working Farms Fund’s program over the next five years.

Many small to mid-sized farms in the metro Atlanta area are at risk of being lost to development. The Working Farms Fund is an innovative, sustainable finance solution that addresses the rapid loss of critical farmlands in the region by acquiring farmland within 100 miles of Atlanta and placing conservation easements on the land to permanently protect it from development and environmentally harmful practices.

The fund then leases the land to farmers, offering a 5- to 10-year path to ownership, targeting especially Black, Indigenous, people of color, and female farmers — who have all faced historic barriers to farmland ownership.

To support the Working Farms Fund, Emory has committed to purchase the locally sourced, fresh food grown from farmers entering the program, which provides the stability these farmers need to make long-term, strategic investments in their business. The partnership also allows Emory faculty and students the opportunity to conduct research on Working Farms Fund farms.

“We are delighted by the USDA’s grant creating support for diverse farmers access to affordable farmland near Atlanta,” says Ciannat Howatt, associate vice president for sustainability, resilience and economic inclusion at Emory. “We look forward to continuing our work with The Conservation Fund and Working Farms Fund to grow our local food system in a way that can be a model across the country.” 

The grant follows a briefing in March on the Working Farms Fund that Emory University and the Resilience and Sustainability Collaboratory (RSC) faculty gave for staff members of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee. 

The RSC is a “think and do” tank that brings together expert thought leaders from corporate, community, non-governmental, governmental and academic groups from Emory and elsewhere to address complex challenges of climate change, health and racial justice. The Working Farms Fund is a current RSC project.

The partnership drew praise from U.S. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.).

"I’m delighted to hear about the $330 million investment in public-private partnerships through our farm bill’s conservation title,” said Chairman Scott. “In particular, I would like to congratulate Emory University, The Conservation Fund and their partners for leveraging a Conservation Innovation Grant into a multiyear RCPP award. This award will help to permanently protect farmland in the greater Atlanta area, provide pathways for minority farmers to access that land, and discover new market opportunities for those farmers.”