by Catie Joyce-Bulay
Winter is often welcomed for its slower pace. For many farmers, it is a time of reflection, whether it’s thinking about retirement, purchasing land or contemplating future land use. Land trusts are helping farmers across the country with these tough decisions.
With a variety of goals and missions, land trusts all have one thing in common — permanent land preservation. More than 700 land trusts have preserved 56 million acres in the United States, according to a 2015 census conducted by the Land Trust Alliance. Working farms or ranchlands were listed among their top three conservation priorities.
How are farmlands preserved? Through a conservation easement, which is a contract between a landowner and a land management entity, such as a nonprofit land trust or government agency.
Conservation easements offer several benefits to the farmer, as well as the land. “An agricultural conservation easement is the traditional tool that we use to make land more affordable for farmers,” said Molly Goren of PCC Farmland Trust. “An easement removes a farm’s development potential in perpetuity, not only lowering the price but ensuring that it will remain a farm forever.”
Agricultural conservation easements are individualized to each farm and the land trust works with each landowner to ensure the contract contains what is important to both farmer and regional conservation efforts.
Funding for land trusts to purchase easements comes from a variety of state and federal grants programs, where they look at the value of the land in terms of its natural, historical and cultural significance. Some of these funding programs were established and are maintained in the Farm Bill and are run by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, through the USDA.
Benham Farms and Tecumseh Land Trust
Benham Farms is a ninth-generation century farm located on the Little Miami River in Eastern Ohio. It provides vegetables, eggs and meat to customers through its CSA and a local market. With a varied use history, including dairy and most recently, a hog farm, the land is now transitioning into permaculture farming. A quarter acre high-rotation garden currently produces the vegetables they sell, with plans in the works for another half to three-quarter acres food forest.
Marian Benham and her husband Stanley McMurray took over farming the land two years ago from her parents, Jerry and Jane Benham. The Benhams put the 135-acre farm into an agricultural conservation easement through the Tecumseh Land Trust in order to preserve it along with the family tradition.
“This farm has been in our family for almost 200 years and after seeing what has happened to Beavercreek and so many other areas that were once farmland Jane and Jerry…felt that the land should be put into an easement so that no matter what happens to us it will remain farmland,” said McMurray, referring to a nearby small farming community that was turned into a sprawling suburb over the last 30 years.
“Part of the land was donated and part of it was funded.” A portion was put into Little Miami Inc., a conservancy that protects land along the national wild and scenic river.
McMurray notes another reason his in-laws put the land into a conservation easement was to increase their retirement fund. Conservation easements can offer some appealing financial benefits to farmers.
“Conservation easements have a monetary value that is determined by an appraisal,” said Michele Burns, associate director of Tecumseh Land Trust. “The appraisal will show the value of the property without the easement and the value of the property with the easement by looking at comparable sales in both categories. The difference between the two is the easement value.” She adds that landowners can sell the easement for up to 75 percent of its value, while the remaining 25 percent is considered a charitable donation that comes with a federal tax benefit, or they can choose to donate the entire easement and receive the tax benefit on the full amount (for up to 16 years for full-time farmers).
Founded in 1990, Tecumseh Land Trust now preserves 28,000 acres in Eastern and Central Ohio.
Wild Hare Organics and PCC Farmland Trust
Katie and Mark Green, both Washington natives, fell into organic farming on the East coast before deciding to move back home to plant roots. They established Wild Hare Organic Farm shortly after their move to Western Washington, renting land in the Puyallup River Valley. In 2015, the landowners, longtime berry farmers Dick and Terry Carkner, were ready to retire and the Greens purchased the land.
They were able to get the land at an affordable rate because of the removal of development rights through an agricultural conservation easement. “To conserve Wild Hare Organic Farm, the Trust implemented what we a call a simultaneous sale,” said Molly Goren, communications manager for PCC Farmland Trust. “This means that at the same time the Greens purchased the farm from the Carkners, PCC Farmland Trust purchased a conservation easement.”
The agricultural conservation easement moves from owner to owner to ensure that the 21-acre farm and its prime soil, on which they continue to grow berries along with hundreds of varieties of vegetables and herbs, will continue as farmland forever.
“With more farmers approaching retirement and our precious farmland disappearing at an alarming rate, we believe access to land is a critical step to securing a farming future in Washington,” Goren said. PCC Farmland Trust, founded in 1999 with funds from PCC Natural Market, shares similar stories with 18 other farm properties they have conserved in Washington, a total of 2,009 acres.
“In addition to easements, we’re working to better connect farmers with conserved land through a new project we call Farm to Farmer,” Goren said. “With an online matching tool and in-person support, Farm to Farmer will enable new and expanding farmers to connect with the land opportunities they need to grow their businesses. At the same time, it will help retiring farmers transfer their land to the next generation. The program will launch in March 2018.”
Orange Circle Farm and Maine Farmland Trust
On the other side of the coast, the Maine Farmland Trust is helping new farmers find affordable acreage in the tight real estate market of Southern Maine. Orange Circle Farms, which grows a variety of organic vegetables sold through their CSA, is one such farm. The farm began on rented land in Stratham, NH. In 2017, they moved onto their new 70-acre property in Berwick, Maine, which they will begin farming this year.
Jeff and Erin Benton, Orange Circle’s owners, had been looking for land to purchase for a while before finding the property. “We were browsing real estate listings in the area as we had been doing for a couple of years before,” said Jeff. “This property popped up with a price that seemed unusually low for the area.”
The listing price was so low because it included the conservation easement, which had not yet been put in place, and would eventually be part of a simultaneous sale. “At the point we entered the picture, the only thing that was missing was a buyer, us,” Jeff said.
The easement was purchased by Maine Farmland Trust with funds raised through private fundraising, said Ellen Sabina, outreach director for Maine Farmland Trust. The land trust also purchases easements through public funding, and sometimes landowners donate the easement.
“Many times, we use purchased easements as a tool to help farmers afford land, as our easement purchase means that the farmer brings less cash or financing to the closing,” she said. “A lot of the beginning farmers we’ve worked with say that they would not have been able to afford to buy their farm otherwise.”
Maine Farmland Trust has protecting 57,802 acres for future food production in Maine. In addition to protect Maine’s farming landscape through agricultural easements, they also work to connect incoming farmers and landowners through Maine Farmlink, an online matching service for farmland owners and farmland seekers, launched in 2002. “Since then we’ve helped to make 180 links,” Sabina said. They also help beginning farmers with business planning and market development, both individually and in workshops.
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