Saving farmland with Conservation Easements 101

Sound Consumer | September 2009

by Kristin Vogel, Office & Outreach Coordinator

When we at the PCC Farmland Trust talk with donors and community members, we find many people have a very good sense of why it’s so important to save local organic farmland. On the other hand, understanding how the trust actually goes about saving land sometimes remains a little vague.

The truth is, saving land is complicated, time-consuming, and involves a lot of stakeholders. Each farm that we endeavor to save has a different geographic and agricultural profile but this variety is what makes what we do so important and vital.

When the PCC Farmland Trust was formed in 1999 (and declared a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in 2000), our process for saving farmland was significantly different than it is today. The initial model was to buy a piece of threatened farmland and then lease it (with a purchase option) to farmers. That was the case with Delta Farm in Sequim, Bennington Place Farm in Walla Walla, and to some extent with Ames Creek Farm in Carnation.

Over the past 10 years, the way we go about saving farmland has changed. In 2007, the PCC Farmland Trust Board of Trustees took an in-depth look at how our organization might refine our approach to save as much acreage as quickly as possible. After reflecting on years of experience, we realized the benefits of concentrating on easements, in lieu of buying the land itself.

This shift is beneficial in a few ways. After a vetting process, where the trust performs due diligence on a property, examining farmers’ credentials and commitment to organic practices, the trust will purchase a conservation easement. Buying a conservation easement restricts the farm’s future non-agricultural development and also legally requires those farming the land — both present and future — to use sustainable, organic farming practices.

Another important advantage of purchasing a conservation easement is reduced cost. It is less expensive for the trust to buy an easement rather than the land. Also, when the trust owns and holds a conservation easement, it allows farmers to purchase the property at a dramatically more affordable price.

Alternately, if a farmer already owns property, he or she might sell the development rights to the trust. This transaction would provide the farmer with funds to improve the farm’s infrastructure, buy machinery, or provide a source of retirement funds — a decision that also offers reassurance that their farmland will be used solely for organic production, rather than development.

Determining the value of an organic agricultural easement is a fine art in itself. I’ll tell you about that in next month’s column.


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