Californian farmers Annie and Jeff Main, 58- and 60-year old respectively, have a legitimate dream. They want their 20-acre organic farm to keep producing wholesome produce for their loyal customers past their retirement.
Here is the trick: their farm is more likely to fall into the hands of real-estate developers than to be bought by young farmers. In California, the farmland grab phenomenon turns 50,000 acres of fields and orchards into roads and constructions every year. Throughout America, the damage amounts to 1 million acres every year. With every acre taken away, the local foodshed takes a hit.
The good news is, Annie and Jeff have found the answer: an easement similar to the deals operated by land trusts to protect land and create natural parks. All it will require is raising $400,000.
Here is how it works in this case: a land trust buys the developement value of the property, assessed at 70% of its total market value—$400,000 at today’s market rate for Good Humus Produce. In doing so, it creates a “conservation easement” that preserves the land in perpetuity. The easement on the farm will limit the market value of the property to its agricultural value, more easily within reach of young farmers’ pockets, and will make it illegal for any development to occur on its 20 acres.
“We want the farm to be and remain affordable for the next generations so that it can be farmed for as long as possible”, Annie Main told me.
Land trusts are beginning to recognize the problems caused by the disappearance of family farms. The relatively small size of this type of properties, however, makes it too expensive for these organizations, who are used to dealing with hundreds of acres at a time, to invest in the legal and fund-raising work.
This is where food co-ops come in.
Like most farmers, Annie and Jeff rely on the sale of their farm to support them throughout their retirement. Hence their need for fund-raising as opposed to simply donating the value of the easement to a land trust. They got to work on the project over eight years ago and single-handedly raised $100,000. In the last six months, however, they were able to raised half as much thanks to the partnership hammered out in the past two years with Yolo Land Trust and the Davis Food Co-op and Sacramento Food Co-op, “One Farm At A Time“. Their reasoning is simple enough: if their combined 40,000 customers were to contribute a 10-dollar tax-deductible donation each, Yolo Land Trust could then get to work and obtain the easement by paying Annie and Jeff for the development value of their farm. They multiply events to benefit the easement fund-raising, such as a Holiday wine tasting this weekend in Sacramento.
In fact, the food co-ops are so excited by the task at hand, and its significance for the whole community, that they have named Good Humus Produce their “pilot project” and are planning to expand their action to other local farms.
Meanwhile, they are still working out the details of the farm easement process, such as: should it include organic practices requirements? In fact, could donors for an easement make this a legal condition of their gift and have it implemented by the land trust?
“The intent is that the farm remains an organic, sustainable and biodynamic system. But currently, there is always the fear that it will become less”, says Annie Main.
To be fair, Californians are no pioneers when it comes to farm conservation. Starting as early as the mid-80s, the State of Massachusetts launched its Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program, wielding conservation easement left and right to prevent developers from grabbing farms. Moreover, it innovated in 1992 by including an Option to Purchase at Agricultural Value (OPAV) in its farmland preservation deeds of easement. This gave the State the right to step in and buy a farm at its agricultural value if a buyer had bidded above it or was not likely to actively farm the land; the State would then put the farm back on the market at its restricted agricultural price or transfer it directly to a farmer. The Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB), who had been running an agricultural land conservation program for years designed to “make reasonable efforts to assure that conserved farmland is accessible and affordable to future generations of farmers”, imported the OPAV in 2007. Finally, PCC Farmland Trust has been at work in Washington State for several years, saving four farms to this date for a combined acreage of 550 acres.
Annie and Jeff have been farming for 34 years and are giving themselves another ten years before retiring. Their goal is to have secured the key to their dream by the end of next year.