“Forty years of farmland conservation, and we are watching it unravel before our eyes.”
That was the warning that John Halsey, president of Long Island’s Peconic Land Trust, delivered to a room full of conservation professionals at this weekend’s Land Access Innovations Training in Providence, Rhode Island. He was referring to the acres of farmland the land trust has protected from development, only to subsequently watch fall out of agricultural production as non-farmers purchase the properties for second, or third, homes.
The warning served to remind the participants of why they were there. The training was convened by the National Young Farmers Coalition and Equity Trust to bring together staff from some of the top agricultural land trusts in the country to address the urgent need to protect farmland as working farms and help the next generation of farmers access to land. Equity Trust has long been a leader in developing innovative tools to help farmers achieve long-term and affordable access to farmland and NYFC is working to help scale up these strategies nationally.
Peconic Land Trust was one of four mentor groups, including Vermont Land Trust, Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, and PCC Farmland Trust, who shared the tools and programs they have developed to keep farmland in the hands of farmers with over twenty land trusts from fourteen states. These groups applied to take part in the training because they are seeing conserved land fall out of production in their regions and want to ramp up their efforts to protect working land for farmers.
The training came on the heels of the annual Land Trust Alliance Rally, which brought thousands of representatives from land trusts across the country to Providence, Rhode Island to share best practices and network. The demand for this training, on top of what Rally provides, marks a growing shift in the conversation about farmland conservation. More and more land trusts are recognizing that to protect farmland means protecting farm viability, and that supporting the next generation of farmers is a critical piece of that work. With land prices on the rise and over two thirds of farmland in this country set to change hands in the next twenty years, it is critical that these groups step up now and play a role in changing the land access dynamics for our next generation of farmers.
The training covered the technical aspects of implementing a conservation easement with an option to purchase at agricultural value (OPAV) and partnering with a farmer to offer a long-term ground lease on property owned by the land trust. In the OPAV easement, the land trust has the option to purchase a farm at its agricultural value or assign the purchase to a farmer if it is not being sold to one. In the ground lease model, the land trust purchases just the farmland while the farmers buy the buildings on the property. Then, the farmers sign a 99-year lease with the land trust for the use of that land. This lets the farmers build equity in the buildings while gaining secure access to prime farmland with a relatively small investment up front.
The mentor groups and attendees will continue to support each other through a working group facilitated by NYFC and Equity Trust. Land trusts will have the opportunity to ask technical questions of the mentor groups as they implement these projects and incorporate affordable farmland conservation into their work.