Wondering how we actually protect farmland forever? This letter from our former Executive Director, Rebecca Sadinsky helps to illuminate the often complicated process.
With one foot in the world of land trusts, and another in the community that produces and sells food, PCC Farmland Trust has taken inspiration and lessons from both. The Trust has learned from the land trust community to be a capable farmland conservation organization, using the tools of that trade: conservation easements, land procurement, perpetual stewardship, habitat restoration, and public access. From the sustainable food producers and their allies, we’ve learned about organic standards, farmland leases, farm business development, direct marketing, crop selection and marketing methods.
The tools from the land trust community come with best practice standards derived from years of experience, and from thousands of conservation projects managed by hundreds of land trusts across North America. The Land Trust Alliance–of which we are a member–provides training and assistance. Our colleague organizations here in Washington generously advise one another and hold networking and training camps so that our newer staff and volunteers have opportunities to learn the technical aspects of conservation easements and easement defense, and so that seasoned land trust professionals can stay up to date on new trends in our field. In short, PCC Farmland Trust’s footing in the land trust community is very solid, and is our mainstay.
The second main source of PCC Farmland Trust’s guidance comes from the sustainable food community. Here we find much of our inspiration, and where we establish our missionary zeal. But this is also less certain footing, in part because the food community is still so evolutionary and expansive. Ideas are percolating; new problems and new solutions are being described and implemented at a dizzying speed. And like the rest of the changing food world, this particular arena has many, many actors without much of a formalized system. We are doing our best to hold on to a flying carpet, and happy to be a part of the great collaboration under way!
Conservation easements essentially remove development opportunity from precious land–forever. When this unique methodology is successfully applied to working land, particularly farmland that is threatened by residential or commercial build-out, the agricultural conservation easement also serves as a way to limit the escalating price of the land, which can put it out of reach for farmers. Without long-term access to good and affordable farmland, all farmers (but particularly soil-invested farmers) cannot produce our food. Conservation easements can remove as much as 60% of the pre-easement price of land.
For the Farmland Trust, the appraised value of the conservation easement sets the target for our fundraising–ideally we want to own the conservation easement and become the steward of it, forever. With an agricultural conservation easement in place, the next land owner or tenant will need to be a farmer. With the Trust’s unique version of a conservation easement, future land owners/users must also be a farmer who grows food or forage, and produces with certified organic and sustainable practices.
To get a picture of how this all works, here is a typical tale: a retiring farmer/land owner wishes his or her land could continue to be farmed, but needs to cash out some or all of the equity in the property. PCC Farmland Trust agrees to buy development rights–that is, buy an agricultural conservation easement from the farmer/land owner. The easements are then valued by an accredited appraiser, as is the remaining value of the farmland itself, the fields and farm buildings, and an assortment of other rights–such as water rights. This becomes the basis for the transaction with the landowner.
At the end of the day, our number one priority is to see our conserved land in production. Really, that is the only way it is truly a win for sustainable and organic farming. Sometimes we acquire an easement from a land owner who is already a committed farmer and expecting to continue for as long as they can. [Jubilee Farm is an example of this scenario.] But that is not always the case. To get a better picture of how the Trust helps ensure that land is farmed, let’s return to our hypothetical tale, with a retiring farmer and the Farmland Trust purchasing a conservation easement. With the Trust’s easement in place, the land is restricted to food production forever–but what about right now?
To get the land back into production, the Trust sometimes works to match a land-seeking farm business owner–a.k.a. a farmer–with a property owner contemplating the sale of an easement to the Trust. We ask the retiring farmer if they are interested in the full sale, which includes the land and buildings and trees, roads, and water rights. We talk to prospective farmland owners about the growing community of sustainable farming nearby, and research other criteria. When the matchmaking works, the Trust can buy an easement at the same time that a farmer buys the reduced-priced land. (Sometimes referred to as “simultaneous sale” in some of our materials.) In this case, it’s a double-win for the community. [Dropstone Farms is an example of this type of preservation.]
In a final scenario, if there is quickly disappearing farmland in an urgent situation, sometimes the only solution is for PCC Farmland Trust to purchase the land and find a tenant to farm the property until such time as the tenant or another farmer can purchase it from the Trust. [Our first preserved farm, Delta Farm is an example of this scenario, or more recently, our Reise Farm project.]
As you can see, it’s all a bit complicated! In many ways, PCC Farmland Trust is working not only to save sustainable and organic farmland, but also to change priorities. As is the case with most things worth doing, there is no magic silver bullet — preserving farmland requires creativity, perseverance, and new ways of thinking inside traditional systems. We’re glad you’re here, learning more about how you can be a part of this important work.