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A Farmer’s Guide to Working With Land Trusts

Access to land is a huge challenge for farmers. Betting you already knew that.

But there are ways to work around, with, or through that hurdle. One great way is by working with a land trust.

Two Coves Farm in Maine is the result of a farmer working with a local land trust. Click to read more about how it worked for them.
Two Coves Farm in Maine is the result of a farmer working with a local land trust. Click to read more about how it worked for them.

Land trusts are non-profit organizations often started by community members to preserve or protect resources like land, habitat, or other natural features from development. They may be volunteer-run, or may include paid staff.

Working with a land trust can help you access affordable farmland in a number of ways. The land trust purchases an easement on property to maintain it in agricultural use, or purchases then resells or leases land at its agricultural value to a working farmer who will farm the land. Having that easement typically reduces the cost of the property, making it more accessible for the farmer.

In addition to lowering the selling price of the land, the easement usually restricts development rights, along with other land usage. It’s like a compromise between the farmer-buyer, the land trust, and the seller. The farmer-buyer agrees to abide by the restrictions of the easement, the land trust and community fund and maintain the resources they appreciate, and the seller gets a cash payment or a tax-deductible donation, or a combination of the two.

The value of the easement varies based on development pressures, the size of the land, zoning ordinances, and other factors. Easements usually restrict further construction on the land, filling in of wetlands, surface mining, and other development. There are often allowances to add to or renovate existing structures, harvest timber, and sell or convey the land for continued agricultural use.

Farmland for saleBeyond just restrictions, though, the easements we’re most interested in commonly use what is called “affirmative language”. The buyer is limited in some ways, but is also required to actively DO some things. In the case of agricultural easements, the land must be purchased by a working farmer and must be actively farmed. Some requirements can also stipulate organic management, or other measures.

Another nifty concept is the “OPAV”. Impressively, we’ve waited several paragraphs to introduce an acronym. This one stands for the Opportunity to Purchase at Agricultural Value. If you are acronym averse, and we don’t blame you for it, you could say that you want to see the land trust exercise its “Preemptive Purchase Rights”. This allows the land trust to step in and purchase land at its agricultural value, and sell it to a working farmer. Because one pressure on agricultural land aside from development is purchase for use as a second (or third) home, the OPAV or purchase rights make it more likely that the land will stay in agricultural use.

If you are hoping to work with a landowner, but think their land might be priced for development and not for farming, you might want to put them in touch with a land trust. You might work with the landowner to develop a lease-to-own agreement or a purchase agreement that is based on a conservation easement, rather than the full market value of the land.

Land trusts can help in other ways. They don’t only sell the land they purchase for conservation and agricultural use. One option is to lease it. Many leases are 99-year leases, often covering the land but not structures. Sometimes, land trusts are seeking a farmer to manage land that they own, making you a salaried farmer, which is an intriguing concept for some.

Because land trusts are very often tapped into the real estate market in their area, they can be very helpful finding land that might be available or may soon become available. They can also help pricing land, and brokering deals. Another area you may wish to work with a land trust is in the transfer of a farm from one generation to the next.

There are some things that land trusts do not do. They don’t loan money. That’s a job for a local bank. They don’t provide technical expertise. That’s where you go to Extension or search On Pasture archives. (:-) They also don’t work on very small properties, or beyond the capacity of their organization. If they don’t have the staff or resources, they just can’t do it.

Land trusts can help you find land, but their number one job is to conserve land. The easements they use are often hard, if not impossible, to change. If you buy or farm land with an easement, be prepared to work with the land trust for as long as you farm that land. Many land trusts make annual visits, and any major changes in management should be run past the land trust.

If you are looking for land, and there is an affordability gap between what you can pay and what the market will bear, that sounds like it’s time to make a call to your local land trust. For more on Land Trusts and how to work with them, here are a couple of great resources from the National Young Farmers Coalition:

Farmland Conservation 2.0 (Just Click to Download)

Conservation 2.0 NYFC

Finding Affordable Farmland (Click to Download)

How to Work With Land Trusts NYFC

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Rachel Gilker
Rachel Gilker
Rachel's interest in sustainable agriculture and grazing has deep roots in the soil. She's been following that passion around the world, working on an ancient Nabatean farm in the Negev, and with farmers in West Africa's Niger. After returning to the US, Rachel received her M.S. and Ph.D. in agronomy and soil science from the University of Maryland. For her doctoral research, Rachel spent 3 years working with Maryland dairy farmers using management intensive grazing. She then began her work with grass farmers, a source of joy and a journey of discovery.

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