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Farmland Conservation

Using markets for environmental change.

Emy Brawley

2015 Fellow

Chicago, IL United States of America

The Kinship Fellows program offered me an opportunity to dive deep into the theory and practice of using markets to make positive environmental change, to strengthen my leadership skills, and to step away from daily demands so that I could think creatively about the future. 

When I applied to become a Fellow, I had been working in land conservation in northeastern Illinois for several years, but I was discouraged at the pace of success. We were trying to protect and restore about 25,000 acres for a new National Wildlife Refuge located two hours outside of Chicago. The private philanthropy that supported these projects was only able to protect a few hundred acres a year. About 70 percent of the Refuge area was farmland and mostly commodities agriculture, which has a big environmental footprint. I was looking for ways to harness farmland lease revenues to support conservation. Market-based strategies seemed promising as a way to advance all of my work but in greater strides.

The initial concept that I outlined in my Kinship application was a farmland conservation investment fund that would unlock permanent protection and natural resource conservation on the last of Chicago’s family farms. I continued to work on the project after returning from the program, and we are now seeking funding to implement a proof-of-concept pilot. Kinship answered all of my questions about how to take an interesting idea and move it through due diligence into a viable project, and ultimately into an investment opportunity.

One of the first things I did when I came back to the office was recruit a board member to help develop a simple financial model so that I could comparatively evaluate different farm properties. Now that we are seeking funding for our pilot project, I trace the ongoing conversations about stacking capital and scaling directly back to my month in Bellingham. The fellowship offered a much richer understanding of the impact investment sector than I could ever have gained on my own, and in an interactive, applied-learning format that integrated the knowledge into my everyday practices.

Being a Fellow was rewarding on many levels and a definitive turning point in my career. I came back inspired and energized from spending time with leading practitioners in their fields. And being in a small-group setting with the Fellows cohort for four weeks created a camaraderie that offered an important mid-career boost to my optimism for tackling the challenges of land conservation in a metropolitan region. But perhaps what was most beneficial was the exceptional content around organizational development, leadership for adaptive change, and collaboration. These are universal skills that cut across projects.

Within a year of returning from the Fellows program, I was promoted to a vice president position within Openlands. I believe that the perspectives and skills I gained during the fellowship allowed me to exercise a broader leadership role within the organization and beyond.

Published November 2016


"...being in a small-group setting with the Fellows cohort for four weeks created a camaraderie that offered an important mid-career boost to my optimism for tackling the challenges of land conservation in a metropolitan region."


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