Planning is a dynamic, stakeholder-driven, multi-step process. Whether it results in a state or regional plan, a local master or comprehensive plan, or a stand-alone plan for agriculture, it is not an end in itself. Plans are continually reviewed, renewed and updated to respond to changing demographics and other conditions. Major steps are outlined below.
Determine Planning Authority
Planning authority and activities vary widely across the country. Most states provide a legal framework to encourage or require planning at the county or municipal level. It is important to understand your own state’s situation before embarking on a plan.
Before you start planning, it is important to know what you are planning for! Agriculture is the art, business and science of cultivating soil to produce crops and raise livestock. But over time and in different places, the definition has expanded to include raising fish—aquaculture; on-farm education and recreation—agritourism; growing plants in water using mineral nutrients—hydroponics, and other activities, like dog kennels.
It is important to involve farmers and others with knowledge about agriculture to learn about the needs and concerns of local farmers and to identify barriers and opportunities for agriculture. This information helps shape community goals and informs development of policies and programs to achieve them. Buy-in from the agricultural community is essential when state and local officials seek public support for implementation strategies.
States and communities have invited input from farmers and others familiar with agriculture through public meetings, surveys and focus groups. Meetings must be scheduled at times, dates and locations convenient for farmers. Sometimes agricultural advisory committees are formed to help guide a planning process or feedback is sought from existing agricultural commissions. For more information about engaging the agricultural community, review the processes described in actual plans and/or refer to planning for agriculture guides.
- State-level Plans
- Local and Regional Plans
- Comprehensive and Master Plans
- Guides to Planning for Agriculture
Inventory and Map Important Resources
An important step is an inventory of local farms and agricultural land to understand the quantity and quality of farmland and how it is being used. Sources of data may include local tax maps and records, aerial photography and information available through a Geographic Information System (GIS) that may be available through government entities and/or planning authorities. Information about soil resources is especially useful and may be obtained from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) online. NRCS has mapped soils in nearly every county in the United States and has identified prime, statewide important and even locally important soils in some regions. The spatial analyses conducted as part of AFT’s Farms Under Threat: The State of the States shows the extent, location, and quality of each state’s agricultural land and tracks how much of it has been converted. To explore our maps, policy scorecard, and background data use the links below to visit our interactive website.
Collect and Analyze Data
Data collection and analysis are an essential part of the planning process that helps participants understand present conditions and trends and identify challenges and opportunities. Information gathering informs goal setting and policies and programs proposed to implement the plan. In this phase, determine community assets, including history, culture, people, nature resources (soils, water, and climate), and physical and financial resources.
Assets also include “social capital” or the relationships between the people who live and work together in the community. Good quality data illuminate assets and opportunities, as well as major challenges facing a community’s food system, such as food insecurity, lack of infrastructure for food processing or distribution, water availability, or development pressure on farmland.
Assessments can be completed at varying scales ranging from small neighborhoods to state- and region wide. A variety of assessment tools are available for communities, including community food assessments, economic impact analyses, farm inventories, and farmer surveys. Asset mapping, for example, identifies and depicts community resources. It is a valuable tool for making projections about growth patterns; identifying the location of farms, food retail, and waste disposal; and analyzing conditions at various levels of granularity—state, county, and Census tract.
Data collection is essential but can be expensive. Thus, it is important to prioritize needs based on budget. It is equally important to collect information from and learn from community members, stakeholders, and advisors during the process. If there is a college or university nearby, explore options to engage students through internships, independent study, a studio, or planning practicum.
A vital source of information about agricultural activity is the Census of Agriculture and other reports from the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Communities may also draw on data from the Bureau of the Census and AFT’s spatial analyses from Farms Under Threat: The State of the States. In addition, communities and states have incorporated findings from economic impact assessments and/or cost of community services studies to document the current contribution of agriculture. Decision-makers in the Northeast can use AFT’s Agricultural Viability Index, an online assessment tool to gauge the vitality of agriculture as an economic sector at county, state, and regional levels.
- Census of Agriculture
- Farms Under Threat – Interactive Website
- Cost of Community Services Fact Sheet
- Agricultural Viability Index – Online Assessment Tool
Create a Vision and Set Goals
Another crucial—and often early—step in the planning process is for the community to work together to create an aspirational vision of the future. Visioning brings diverse community members together to develop a shared ideal of what they want and where they want their food system to be in a designated time period—usually between five and 50 years. This leads to creating shared goals and objectives to achieve the community vision.
Where visioning is big picture, goal setting is more specific. However, it is possible to have too many goals, so another important piece of the process is to identify big, overarching goals and more concrete objectives. Communities often strive to set “SMART” goals that are: Specific, Measurable, Acceptable, Realistic and Time-bound.