Let’s Save Our Farms!

Annie Main. Copyright Marija Vidal

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.

Annie Main mans Good Humus Produce's stand at a farmers' market.

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.

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5 Responses to Let’s Save Our Farms!

  1. Shirlee says:

    I’m very encouraged to learn about this movement.
    Thanks for reporting on it!

  2. Bo Tipton says:

    This is a wonderful program. I have been through losing a farm when I was a young man and my dad had to sell the farm. Now it is a housing development. I think back and remember not only the food that was grown but all the wildlife who lived on the farm. It was its on little world but was destroyed to build houses because of economics. I would gladly pay $10 to see this farm saved.

    Bo

  3. Jessica Morris says:

    Conservation are not necessary to save the Family farm. Sadly, conservation easements are targeting the small family farmer because often times the small family farmer does not have the full understanding of the implications of conservation easements on the future of the farm. Conservation easements are a death sentence to the family farmer and are driving them in to extinction.
    The truth is that changes in science and nature could deem perpetual easements useless or harmful. As numerous legal scholars and policy experts have argued, conservation easements that bind landowners and their descendants in perpetuity ultimately become antiquated and, therefore, useless or even harmful.

    PLUS, try selling your farm once it is burdened with an easement. It is becoming nearly impossible for a buyer to get loan with an easement, title insurance or any kind of insurance on these farms that ultimely are worthless. Conservation easements are the biggest land grab scam to hit the conservation movement. Now try putting a new chicken coop on your farm or doing anything with it — you can’t or you have to get “permission” to farm. So it may seem like you are getting a little bit of money now but you are destroying the value and future ability to farm for generations to come — and this is what these rabid environmentalists want you to believe they are protecting! BE AFRAID very AFRAID! The worst thing you can do is put your farm ina conservation easement to save it! READ Joel Salatin’s article: “BEWARE OF CONSERVATION EASEMENTS” cut and paste : http://flavormagazinevirginia.com/conservation-easements/

    BE Afraid of Conservation easements! Do not put your farm in a conservation easement! Many farmers are suffering at the dead hand of rabid environmentalists.

    • Laetitia Mailhes says:

      Do NOT be afraid of conservation easements. AND read the fine prints in the regulation and in your contract. Terms and conditions vary from State to State. No blanket statement such as the one made by Jessica can possibly give a fair picture of what conservation easements for farms and farmland entail throughout the U.S.. Definitely keep a critical mind, however, get legal advice and ask all the questions that you possibly can.

    • Jon says:

      This is what you call misinformation.

      Let’s see what’s wrong with this comment.
      “Sadly, conservation easements are targeting the small family farmer because often times the small family farmer does not have the full understanding of the implications of conservation easements on the future of the farm.”
      1. Conservation Easements have been placed on property spanning from 5 acres to 10,000 acres – everything ranging from small organic farms to vast swaths of timber land or critical wildlife habitat. All land trusts, by law, require willing landowners who want to work with them to seek independent legal and tax advice. By the time the easement is signed, and long before that, there is little misunderstanding as to what it stands for.

      “Conservation easements are a death sentence to the family farmer and are driving them in to extinction.”
      2. Farming is booming again in places like Vermont, all over New England, the pacific northwest and other states in large part because of conservation easements. Every conservation easement is tailored to the needs and desires of the landowner. A conservation easement that is placed on a farm will almost always include language that allows the farmer and future farmers to do anything they want as it relates to farming without having to ask permission from the land trust. And if it doesn’t, it’s probably because the landowner wanted it! The land remains in private hands and on the tax roll. All that the land trust holds is an easement on future development rights, and in the case of the arid midwest, the water rights if they are important to the conservation values. Building a chicken coop on your farm that was conserved for agricultural purposes is perfectly OK under most easements, by the way.

      “As numerous legal scholars and policy experts have argued, conservation easements that bind landowners and their descendants”
      3. Yes, they bind them from subdividing their properties. That is the point of conserving their land. If you want your family farm to be subdivided upon your death because your kids can’t pay the estate tax, that is your right. But it’s also the right of other people to want to conserve their property they spent a lifetime protecting and nourishing.

      “PLUS, try selling your farm once it is burdened with an easement. It is becoming nearly impossible for a buyer to get loan with an easement, title insurance or any kind of insurance on these farms that ultimely [sic] are worthless. ”
      4. Jessica, all someone has to do is take 5 minutes to search some databases and you will see MANY conserved properties that are selling like hotcakes, farms included especially when an OPAV is included. Many people don’t want to live in subdivisions. They want to see wildlife on their property, they want to hunt on their property, they want to live a traditional life. Buying a property with a conservation easement on it allows you to do that – all for a bargain price! And as it relates to this article, many young farmers can’t afford land unless there is an easement on it due to the skyrocketing prices and the initial cost of starting a farm operation.

      Land Trusts are non-profit, locally owned organizations that are run and managed by your friends and neighbors and often have deep ties to your community. Call them rabid environmentalists if you want, but really they are true conservatives. They are people that want to see land as it was intended to be and always has been – open, nourishing, and productive.

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