Saving the Farm

Farmland conservation requires a three-pronged effort from landowners, communities, and state and federal governments. Learn what you can do to protect yours.

by Dani Yokhna

by Kristin Mehus-Roe



In this Article

  • History of Farmland Conservation
  • Saving Agricultural Lands
  • Becoming Stewards of the Land

    Ag Conservation Resources

  • Learn about farmland conservation


    In the 1930s a cloud of dust settled on this country that would change the landscape of farming forever.

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    The Dust Bowl was felt across the United States, from California, where many of the desperate farmers fled, to Washington, D.C., where even the Capitol building was shrouded in the black dust.

    Drought, soil erosion and poor water management had destroyed the rich agricultural lands of the Plains, creating an environmental catastrophe that threatened a way of life.

    Farmers left in droves—the land many had sown for generations was no longer capable of supporting agriculture.

    Ironically, it was Orange County, California, many made haste for. Southern California was a sort of El Dorado for them: An agricultural paradise that teemed with life and the fragrance of orange blossoms. There was an orange on every tree and possibility in every inch of its fertile soil. There, the dust of the fragile Midwest was far removed.

    Orange County, however, turned out to have a similar fate in store. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s may have swept lands of their fertile soil but the mass suburbanization of Orange County in the 1980s and ’90s swept the agricultural land away for good.

    History of Farmland Conservation
    As a result of the Dust Bowl, Congress passed the Soil Conservation Act of 1935. As part of this act, the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) was established.

    Its purpose was to educate farmers to use environmentally responsible farming techniques that would preserve both the farmland and the quality of the water and air.

    The Dust Bowl environmental disaster had ruined thousands of acres of ag land, sent farm families spiraling into poverty, and polluted the air all the way from Nevada to the Eastern Seaboard.

    It also proved to many people at the federal and local levels that practicing responsible farming was important to all of us: farmers, ranchers and citizens.

    Poor growth management was the cause of Orange County’s ag-land loss. Once the capital of the U.S. citrus market, in the year 2000 the county had less than 1,000 acres in citrus groves.
    Although it’s largely too late for the once serene land that makes up the county, farmland conservationists around the country took note of the county’s sordid story and vowed to work to prevent another.


    Saving Agricultural Lands
    According to Jerry Cosgrove, director, Northeast region, of American Farmland Trust (AFT), a national nonprofit dedicated to conserving farmland, there are three levels of support for farmland protection:
    1) as landowners;
    2) on the community level; and
    3) on the state and federal level.

    The Role of Landowners
    Landowners, farmland protection advocates say, are truly the key to saving farmland. Three-fourths of the land in the United States is in private ownership, so “the conservation ethic starts with the landowner,” says Cosgrove. One of the most devastating causes of farmland loss is developer pressure on farmers. As subdivisions go up, the value of the land increases drastically—pushing up the property taxes as well as the temptation to accept a sweet payout. Jennifer Vincent, AFT communications director for the Central Great Lakes region, points out that the highest quality agricultural land is also the most attractive to home buyers. “There’s an enormous amount of pressure placed on farmers by developers.”

    • Development Rights: Cosgrove points out that without proper incentive, it’s difficult to get farmers to come to the table. This is where Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easements comes in. Called PACE, or Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) in some areas, these programs may be funded by a state or county or a private nonprofit organization. PACE programs essentially buy the development rights from an agricultural landowner. The farmer is generally paid the difference between the value of the land as farmland and the value of the land on the open market. The goal is to ease the pressure on farmers to sell their land to developers who are offering large sums of money and to assist in adding to the viability of the farm business. The money is often used to upgrade farm equipment, start a roadside stand, increase markets, or, for older farmers, is placed toward retirement savings. PACE programs generally buy the development rights into perpetuity. No one can ever subdivide the land or use it for any commercial purpose other than agriculture.

      “They can sell or donate the development rights to the local government or a nonprofit agency. It’s an exercise of private property rights and all but one or two states allow landowners to do that,” says Cosgrove.

    • Estate Planning: Farmland advocates point out that the most important thing a farmer can do when considering conservation is to plan ahead. Estate planning is becoming one of the prime areas of farmland conservation.

      “Too often people throw their hands up and let the next generation deal with it,” says Cosgrove. “These decisions are best made by a landowner with a clear vision of the future of the farmland.”

      Farm transfers are one way to keep land in agriculture while helping a new farmer into the business and supplying the outgoing farmer with retirement revenue.

      Essentially, a farm transfer can be moving a farm from one generation to the next, or it can be from a farmer to another unrelated farmer. The idea is to keep the farm business intact in the transfer.

      “Many times the way farmers retire is not done with a lot of forethought. They finally come to the conclusion that this is the year that they’re done and they quit farming, call the auctioneer and sell or rent the land. By the time they pay all the fees and taxes they may not have much leftover to retire on … they need to look at those assets as ones in their retirement plan,” says John Baker of the Beginning Farmer Center at Iowa State University.

      “We’ve figured out how to keep the farm in the family but not the family on the farm,” says Baker, pointing out that any farmer wanting to participate in a farm transfer has to take the first step and be committed to the process.

      Cosgrove adds, “Your land is your legacy. It’s not just about you and your lifetime but about future generations.”


    The Role of Communities
    Local and county planning boards are important for farmers and farmland.

    It’s at this level that communities decide how to implement federal policies, as well as develop their own.

    Many of the laws and farm funding programs that are established on the federal level are either implemented or interpreted and enhanced at this level.

    Many ag conservation organizations also operate on this level and it’s an excellent place for a farmer to get involved.

    Cosgrove describes it as “vertical integration”: What an individual farmer says and does at the community level influences the decisions that are made at the state and federal policy level.

    “In the Northeast, community land use laws are very much developed at the local level,” says Cosgrove. He adds that small, part-time, and/or hobby farms are an excellent fit for this type of public service. “It’s important that we have people who are familiar with the concerns of farmers, but full-time farmers don’t have the time. They’re struggling day to day, but many of the part-time or hobby farmers are landowners because they have the choice and the means and own farmland because they want to conserve it.”

    • Slow Growth: Growth management laws generally operate on the local or state level. They protect farmland by channeling development away from agricultural areas and by limiting the areas to which urban services extend.

      For example, a county may stem urban sprawl by prohibiting an extension of sewer or water services. As part of slow or “smart” growth laws, ordinances may require “cluster zoning,” where private residences must be grouped close together on small lots in order to protect open or agricultural land.

      One example of slow-growth planning is King County, Wash., where they have a “no net loss of farmland” policy. The policy limits the conversion of agriculturally zoned land unless an equal amount of agriculturally viable land is allotted in the same district.

    • Ag Zones: Through Agricultural District Programs, farmers can earmark areas where agriculture is protected from development. The ADPs benefit farmers by providing them the security to expand their businesses. Keeping agriculture strong in a particular area helps keep the farming infrastructure in place. Each ADP is formed with the needs of that community and is purely voluntary. ADPs are popular because of their flexibility.

      Similar, but much more formal is Agricultural Protection Zoning (APZ). Unlike ADP, APZ is not voluntary at the individual level; rather, it is land use control as directed by the local government. These zones protect agricultural areas—limiting or prohibiting other types of commercial activity. The benefit of the APZ is that it keeps very large areas of land in agriculture, helping to stabilize farm communities rather than individual farms.

    • PR: Public relations, say conservationists, are vital to conserve farmland. Every farmer must act as an ambassador for agriculture to the rest of the community and larger public.

      “One of the things we’ve seen as being the most helpful is for farmers and ranchers to help the community to see the benefit of agriculture,” says Betsy Garside, director of communications for American Farmland Trust. “Getting involved in policy or involved in farm tours helps neighbors and communities to realize that the benefits of farmland belong to all of us: good fresh food, open land, clean air.”

      Public relations can be done in many ways, from opening a roadside stand, to selling at a farmer’s market, to offering your farm for a farm tour. In Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts, Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) has recruited the support of the non-farming community by promoting a Local Heroes program, which showcases the contribution of farmers across the region.

    • Right-to-Farm Laws: These laws are enacted on both the local and state levels. Essentially, they prevent farmers from being the target of nuisance lawsuits as long as they are using good and generally accepted farming practices. They strengthen the legal position of farmers being sued by neighbors and protect them from anti-nuisance ordinances.


    The Role of State and Federal Governments
    Just as important are programs and support available through state and federal governments.

    • National nonprofits: There are a number of national nonprofits that work to conserve farmland; among them is the American Farmland Trust, which was founded by farmers in 1980. Betsy Garside explains that the focus of American Farmland Trust is limited to where the “best farmland is the most threatened.” She quickly adds that it’s not that they are unconcerned about the loss of other ag land, simply that they don’t have the resources to go everywhere.

      AFT, she says, focuses on three things:

      1. Protecting farmland: putting in place publicly funded easement programs so that farmers and ranchers have an alternative to selling to developers and looking to permanently protect farmland through legislation at the county, state and federal levels. She points out that protecting farmland happens on every level, from the individual farmer to the federal government.
      2. Planning for agriculture by stopping the loss of land through “good” development and by keeping farming economically viable.
      3. The final way AFT works is to improve farmland.

        “AFT is actively seeking and developing ways to protect wildlife habitat, develop healthy watersheds, and help ensure that the conservation benefits of farmland are recognized,” says Garside.

        Farm and environmental conservations are working together increasingly—finding common grounds in areas that were once battlegrounds. For example, there are now ways for farmers to get tax deferments or financial support for creating stream buffers or keeping part of their land fallow or wildlife friendly.

        “We develop and encourage on-farm practices that continue to help farmers steward conservation,” says Garside. Ultimately, keeping land ag or wild serves similar purposes: it’s better for the general environment and keeps the area rural with wide, open spaces.

    • Government Agencies: The National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) is one of several federally funded agencies that work to protect farmland and the environment. Established as a remedy to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, the NACD is made up of 3,000 districts across the United States—one in almost every county in the country.

      “Cost share is always the thing,” says Ron Francis of the NACD. “We realize people want to do the right thing but often can’t unless there is some financial incentive. We need the government programs and to support the Farm Bill—it benefits everyone, not just farmers and ranchers. We all get clean air and clean water.”

      Although the NACD is a federal program, theprogram was started with the independent-minded farmer in mind. “It is locally led,” says Francis, “that’s been the value of the system from the very beginning. They were smart enough to know farmers won’t listen to government. Instead, the farmers and ranchers who are your neighbors are on the board.”

      The NACD promotes conservation-minded farming in each district: setting up demonstrations, helping farmers to get funding, promoting local, state and federal legislation to protect the environment while protecting farmers. Francis adds, “Maintaining resources is the first priority. The districts are three prong: they operate at the local, state, and federal level and are usually tied into existing programs.”

    • Farm Bill 2002: The Farm Bill passed in 2002 allocates more money for farmland conservation than ever before. It’s also coupled tightly with environmental measures—paying farmers to create cover crops, till efficiently, create buffer zones between grazing cattle and row crops and streams, and keep areas open to wildlife. The Conversation Security Program (CSP), says Francis, is particularly good for the small farmer. “It’s available to everybody no matter what size farm and what crops. Almost anyone can figure out a way to do something with this program as long as it’s conservation based.”
    • Tax Breaks: There are several ways in which farmers can receive tax breaks. For property tax relief they may be taxed on the basis of the agricultural value of the land rather than the appraised open-market value (every state but Michigan has this “differential assessment law”), or they may receive tax credits to offset property taxes they pay. They may also receive tax breaks for letting chunks of land lie fallow or for creating environmental buffers.


    Becoming Stewards of the Land
    “I wish I could say there are perfect solutions that can be put into place but we’ve found there is no such thing as a perfect solution,” says Garside. “It takes individual commitment, community commitment, the right policies, and the money to support these policies.”

    Three thousand acres of farmland are lost to urban sprawl every day. Seventy-five percent of prime agriculture is at the urban edge and under constant threat from development. “Farmland conservation is increasing but that’s probably in inverse proportion to the perceived threat,” admits Cosgrove. “In some areas there is no ag land left and that’s where they’re thinking of it. Where there is land, they aren’t thinking about it.”

    Farmers receive many direct and indirect benefits from supporting ag land conservation. Tax deferments or credits, money for development rights, and support for environmentally friendly farming techniques can all be a boon to a struggling farmer.

    Indirectly, however, a farmer receives much more: The satisfaction of providing a legacy of farming for future generations. By preserving their own farmland, a farmer can support and strengthen a community they are bonded to and the land that they cherish. The history of their farm, as well as the clean air, water, and rural beauty that the farm supports, is preserved forever.

    Garside points out that simply by becoming a farmer you are ensuring that good ag land stays ag. “Farmers truly are the stewards of the land.

    About the Author: Kristin Mehus-Roe is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, Calif. 


    This article first appeared in the April/May 2003 issue of Hobby Farms magazine. Pick up a copy at your local newsstand or tack and feed store. Click Here to subscribe to HF.

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