The Wrong Kind of Silos for Rural America

When goals are in conflict, it's time look for common interests. A non-governmental initiative offers lessons for public managers.
June 24, 2009 AT 3:00 AM
Feather O'Connor Houstoun
By Feather O'Connor Houstoun  |  Contributor
A senior adviser to the Wyncote Foundation

A recent trip through the Delaware Bayshore region of New Jersey left me with more than just quarts of ripe strawberries and asparagus. The accomplishments there, in terms of farmland and open-space preservation, carry important lessons for public managers. This New Jersey story illustrates the opportunities that can be missed when single-purpose funding fails to emphasize discovery of compatible purpose among near-by program silos.

Contrary to popular perceptions, several portions of New Jersey remain open space. The Bayshore is home to the largest concentration of farmland in the state, interwoven with estuarine wetlands, waterways and woodland. This mixed landscape supports significant, viable farm production as well as a diverse array of local and migratory species that are threatened or endangered, making the Bayshore a habitat of international importance.

To the casual observer, open space is open space. Yet the needs of profitable farming, watershed protection, passive recreation and wildlife habitat protection are different and sometimes in conflict, championed by people and public agencies with very different perspectives. In the Bayshore, conservation advocates and farmers have historically stood in opposition.

These interest silos -- beginning literally at the ground level -- run vertically through political alliances at the local level, through state legislative committees, state regulatory agencies, and state and federal funding sources. These interests are reflected in advocacy organizations ranging from those concerned with loss of farmland and restrictions on farming to environmental advocates concerned about farm practices that harm habitats and diminish water quality.

Collisions in the Bayshore were routine: Local governments resented the increasing land-trust acquisitions that took land off the tax rolls; farmers grew defensive when environmentalists criticized certain farm practices, and they were resentful when land previously used for agriculture was acquired by land trusts; conservation advocates felt rebuffed and misunderstood.

What these stakeholders held in common was the fear that encroaching, unplanned development could undercut their respective long-term goals. Federal and state categorical programs combined with philanthropic dollars gained haphazard "wins" for farmland preservation and open-space acquisition. But without a comprehensive, cross-sector plan of prioritization and long-term stewardship, the Bayshore was winning battles even as it risked losing the war.

In the face of increased development pressure, conservationists began to realize that a viable farm economy was key to protecting the Bayshore landscape, and farmers began to realize that federal funds for stewardship and state funds for farmland preservation could help to maintain a viable farm economy.

The interested parties are now taking great pains to nurture their relationships, building trust and respect, in part, by injecting mutually beneficial funding streams into land-preservation efforts. They have demonstrated that interdependencies can yield significant leverage for the farm economy as well as the environment.

The New Jersey Audubon Society now works with farmers to help them apply for federal funds and implement stewardship projects for wildlife habitat. Once these relationships have been established, NJAS introduces farmers interested in permanently protecting their land to land trusts that can leverage private and public funding. The Nature Conservancy works with individual farmers bordering on its preserves to help them understand and adopt sustainable farming practices that ultimately improve the farmers' bottom lines. And the New Jersey Conservation Foundation develops and promotes farmers markets in nearby communities as part of the state's produce-marketing programs.

The lessons here for public managers are transferable to other programs that work, in parallel, within the same physical or policy space. These lessons outline a recipe for synergy:

o Establish trust among potential partners. In the Bayshore's most successful collaborations, longtime residents employed by conservation organizations are the initial face of collaboration. Advocacy organizations mute their implied criticisms, stretch their concept of what success looks like, and sell it upstream to their public and private sources of support.

o Make clear the common threat (in the Bayshore's case, checkerboard development) in order to demonstrate that losses in one sector (farmland) have deleterious effects on others (open space, habitat), and vice versa.

o Build a vision. Key is establishing belief in the opportunity to achieve through cooperative action what none could achieve individually. The magnification of technical assistance, public support and funding pooled from diverse categorical program sources (state, federal and private) captures the imagination of individuals accustomed to working toward narrower programmatic goals.

o Incentivize, encourage or even require shared planning and communication. In the Bayshore, the non-governmental agencies took the lead, but it's public managers who should be leading local players to a common table.