Holding onto Farmland, One Conservation Easement at a Time - Modern Farmer

Holding onto Farmland, One Conservation Easement at a Time

Across the United States, the land of retiring farmers and ranchers is getting bought up by developers eager to subdivide it. Land trusts may be the solution to the farm loss problem.

Photography by Shutterstock.

Nate Lewis and Melissa Barker knew that Oyster Bay Farm was for them. “It ticked all the boxes,” says Lewis. Situated in Olympia, Washington along the shores of Puget Sound, the fertile land and waterfront views make the farm an ideal spot. 

There was just one problem: Lewis and Barker could not afford to buy the farm or the land on which it sits—that is, until they worked with an agricultural land trust.

What is a land trust?

Land trusts can be non-profit conservation organizations or, in some instances, government bodies that work to conserve agricultural land in perpetuity.

Without farmland to grow crops or ranchland for livestock, we don’t eat. Conserving farmland underpins a stable local food supply. Without agriculture, jobs are lost; 22.1 million full- and part-time jobs were related to the agricultural and food sectors in 2022, which equals 10.4 percent of the total US employment. Keeping farmland in farming is crucial for our food supply and food security, and it’s why the American Farmland Trust (AFT), a national conservation organization, advocates for keeping farmers and farmland together. 

The AFT predicts that more than 300 million acres of farmland and ranch land could change ownership within the next two decades, with some of it transitioning out of agriculture use permanently. As retiring farmers exit the field, they are looking to the equity they’ve built up in their land on which to retire. That can be a significant sum, something that young or new farmers may not be able to afford. (According to the USDA’s 2022 Census of Agriculture, farmers under the age of 35 account for only nine percent of all producers.) But real estate developers can afford it. 

“Between 2001 and 2021, the country lost 11 million acres of agricultural land,” says Jen Dempsey, director of the Farmland Information Center and senior advisor for the AFT. “Development,” she says, “remains the most significant and direct threat to farmland.” 

Ben Miles, is the Southeast Program manager for Land Trust Alliance (LTA), a member organization with 950 land trusts nationwide. “Most farmers and ranchers could find a buyer willing to purchase their property and develop it, whether into 10-acre ranchettes or 1/8-acre lots,” he says. 

A land trust is able to purchase land outright, remove the development potential and then lease or sell the land back to a farmer. It is also able to help a beginning farmer if the selling price being asked by an existing farmer is too high. 

Community land trusts retain ownership of the property while the farmer pays a tenancy back to the trust to farm the land. But this can be a mixed bag. The farmer owns the buildings and the equipment, but not the land. 

[RELATED: Q&A: How Community Land Trusts Help to Preserve Farmland]

“Farmers look at their property values going up to retire,” says Lewis. Without value in the land, it becomes difficult for the farmer to gain equity or retirement savings. 

How do land trusts work?

By far the most popular way a land trust works is through the purchase of a conservation easement: a legally binding agreement between a land trust and a property owner, designed to keep farms and ranches conserved for agricultural use in perpetuity. 

The land is first appraised without any conservation restrictions placed on it. This is generally the higher value of the land with zoning and development potential attached to it. It is then appraised with conservation restrictions placed on it. The difference between the two values represents the “easement” value of the property. In 2022, the AFT and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service sent out a survey to land trusts across the US. The majority of respondents to the survey, 88 percent, reported conserving 5.9 million acres of farmland and ranchland through conservation easements. 

In the case of Oyster Bay, the former owners sold the easement value of the property to Community Farmland Trust. They were then able to retire, having leveraged the equity in their property. Lewis and Barker were able to buy the more affordable property without the development rights attached. Since 2018, they have been producing and selling free-range chicken eggs and meat on the farm’s idyllic 40 acres.

“The fee interests—the dirt, the soil, the property—are in our names,” says Lewis, while the conservation easement is in the land trust’s name. The property owner, in this case Lewis and Barker, retains ownership and usage of the land—such as the right to continue farming or to raise livestock. The legal agreements governing an easement are extremely comprehensive including the buying and selling of the farm property. “Easements can be amended and altered slightly, but it can be a very challenging process,” says Lewis. As a general rule, once the land is conserved and the easement filed with the land records office, it is binding and travels with the property for all current and future owners. Even if Lewis and Barker sell the property, the conditions and restrictions on the easement remain in place forever. 

But nothing is perfect. “The easement in our situation reduced the overall cost of the initial purchase in 2018, but now, as property values overall have risen, the land is worth almost the same as before the purchase,” says Lewis.

This is a concern for Lewis and Barker, as they wonder what will happen when it’s their turn to retire and pay the land forward. Their daughter currently does not want to farm. So, will the property again become unaffordable?

Lewis also cautions that land trusts can be complicated legal quagmires and that those entering into a trust should have tempered expectations. Lease agreements, inheritance regulations and the shared responsibility of land stewardship between the trust that owns the land and the farmer can take time to work out. It took Lewis and Barker more than three years to finally have everything in place. All three parties involved (the sellers, the land trust and Lewis and Barker) needed to work out the details of the sale and conservation restrictions being placed on the land. The land trust had to do land surveys and environmental assessments to obtain a grant that let them purchase the easement. “It all takes time,” says Lewis.

How can farmers get started with land trusts?

For farmers looking to conserve their land in a trust and for young agrarians interested in acquiring farmland, the AFT’s Land Transfer Navigators program in partnership with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service is a good place to start.

“Some land trusts,” says Miles, “also have programs connecting new farmers with retiring farmers, through Farm Link programs, or run incubator or community farms, so they may be able to directly help new farmers get access to land and to get their business started.”

Land access and the ability of young farmers to be able to purchase land is a pressing problem that could be addressed in the upcoming Farm Bill. The Increasing Land Access, Security and Opportunities Act is one of several bipartisan bills addressing the issue. Led in the House of Representatives by Joe Courtney (D) from Connecticut, Zach Nunn (R) from Iowa and Nikki Budzinski (D) from Illinois, it hopes to prioritize projects that give direct financial assistance to farmers, involve collaborative partnerships and transition farmland from existing producers to the next generation.

“We are in a land access crisis,” says Lewis. “As farmers get older and look at how they can retire, we need all the options on the table.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that land trusts are legal agreements administered by non-profit conservation organizations. The conservation easement is the legal agreement, while the land trust is the organization that holds or owns the easement. 

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