Saving farmland with conservation easements, part II

Sound Consumer | October 2009

Last month we discussed the benefits of buying conservation easements. The PCC Farmland Trust buys easements in lieu of purchasing property because they are less expensive and help ensure the land will be protected from future non-agricultural development.

This month we continue to explore this idea, focusing on the trust’s pioneering work using easements for organic farming.

Determining the value of an organic agricultural easement is a fine art — a piece of suitable farmland has different values, depending on its use. There is the agricultural value of land, and there is the developable land value — what is traditionally referred to, and not without irony by those of us championing farmland preservation, as the “highest and best use.”

The difference between the agricultural value and the developable land value is the price of the conservation easement, and the piece theoretically purchased by the trust.

Much of our work in drafting and negotiating agricultural organic easements is pioneering. There are many land trusts that purchase conservation easements as a means to preserve land for open space or green space, but instances of organic agricultural easements on small, local farms are relatively rare.

As it stands now, legislation, land use and practices — and the majority of farming practices themselves — still are all geared toward developing land exclusively for profit rather than securing a stable and sustainable source of food. Our easements are very unique in that they ensure that the farmland is in active, organic production — permanently.

Finding eligible farmers for projects also has become a larger priority for the trust in recent years, both by intention and necessity. The trust finds farmers in a variety of ways: individual inquiries from potential farmers; with the help of university extension programs such as Washington State University Extension; through local conservation districts; and with the help and support of Washington FarmLink, a program run by Cascade Harvest Coalition.

In many ways, the PCC Farmland Trust is working not only to save local 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.

Purchasing organic agricultural conservation easements is one of the most effective ways we have to preserve farms and ensure sustainable sources of food, both now and in the future.

by Kristin Vogel, Office & Outreach Coordinator


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