Farmland Affordability: Programs, Policy, Vision…

It’s time to shed light on the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP), one of the most important USDA programs that helps make farmland more affordable for farmers.  That’s in theory!  But do conservation easements make farms more affordable over time in practice?

FRPP provides a 1:1 match of state and private dollars to fund the purchase of development rights from private landowners.  These rights are otherwise known as conservation easements.

Here’s the theory:  Once a land trust holds the conservation easement on a particular property, that property is no longer attractive to housing or commercial developers.  Land prices cease to be driven by high demand, prices stabilize and are more closely tied to agricultural use.  The land stays affordable for farmers.

In Practice:     Easements generally keep down land prices, but not low enough to encourage farmer to farmer land sales.  Conserved farmland does not always loose its appeal by virtue of its development potential being stripped.  Aside from Vermont and Massachussets (more on them below), easements rarely incorporate affordability mechanisms.  In some cases, market prices are driven up by estate owners willing to pay top dollar for beautiful conserved land on which to recreate or possess a second home.

The good news for preserving the “working landscape” is that the vast majority of conserved lands continue to be farmed.  The American Farmland Trust in its 2006 report, “A National View of Agriculture Easement Programs: Measuring Success in Protecting Farmland” concluded, “…Protected parcels largely remain in farming, even for the many properties that are later purchased by non-farmers primarily for residential use—the single most important finding of this study. The reason, as suggested by data on parcel re-sales for a number of programs, is that the purchasers tend to lease their newly acquired land to active farmers for ease of management and tax reasons.”

These findings also suggest that, as time goes on, farmers are owning less of these conserved lands.  They might be working them, but under what conditions?  Is there secure tenure?  Do farmers with short term leases and insecure tenure arrangements have an incentive to improve soils and water quality?

Easement programs are interesting because they employ public money to secure privately held property rights for perceived public benefit.  The question is whether it is in the public’s best interest to thread farmland affordability into farmland conservation so farmers can own more conserved parcels over time.

Bear with me, this ties back into the main topic of this article, FRPP…

Some groups are lobbying in Washington D.C. this week on behalf of beginning farmers. The lobbying effort is part of the grander proposed Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2011.   One item is the push to tie federal conservation money to farmland affordability mechanisms.  A National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition  (NSAC) quick summary of the proposed legislation states, ““Amend the FRPP to provide selection criteria that allow the eligible entities that implement the program to give funding priority to farm transfers to beginning and farmers and ranchers (BFRs), easements with an option to purchase at the agricultural use value, applicants with a succession plan that creates opportunities for BFRs, and other mechanisms that maintain the affordability of farm and ranchland.”

Vermont and Massachusetts are two states (the only two states, to my knowledge) that incorporate the Option to Purchase at Agricultural Value (OPAV) into farmland protection easements purchased in these states.  (Another good comparison of the VT and MA programs can be found here ).  The idea in Washington D.C. is to amend FRPP to require that easement programs across the nation incorporate similar affordability mechanisms if they are to be eligible for the 50% cost share from FRPP.

Would more easement programs adopt the OPAV if this were the case?  Another potential ramification—we all know that budgets are being cut from every direction—could this provision be a way to effectively conserve the conservation dollars?

There are many more great ideas in the proposed Act.  The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has more information about the Act and how you can become involved in getting it passed.  The National Young Farmers Coalition is also making a push and has information about how you can take action.

 

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About Ben Waterman

Ben writes about land access, tenure, and stewardship issues that are relevant to new farmers in Vermont. He coordinates the Land Access Program at UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture: http://www.uvm.edu/sustainableagriculture/?Page=begland.html=
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