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7. Community Partners

What you’ll learn

  • The variety of community partners and their roles in helping access farmland
  • Examples of h ow farmers have worked with community partners to acquire land
  • The role of conservation easements placed on farmland

Where to look and who to talk to

Acquiring a farm without help can be challenging, if not impossible. Fortunately, there are many individuals, organizations, agencies, and companies in your community who have an interest in seeing farms remain active and productive. Along with your personal network, these community partners can help you plan and search for farms, and achieve secure farmland tenure.

By networking with as many of these resources as possible, a farm seeker can build relationships partners who can help with a farm search, communications and negotiations, legal work, and financing.  Many farmers gain access to farms and farmland by building a team of partners, all of whom want to see new farmers succeed and local farms flourish.

This lesson introduces these partners and their role in farmland access. You’ll learn how other farmers have worked with community partners to find, access and secure their farms, including the role of conservation easements placed on farmland.

Next section – B. PARTNERS TO CONSIDER

Who are community partners

Partners can be community members, organizations, and agencies. They vary in their goals, motivations, priorities, and roles when it comes to helping farmers access and secure farms.

Community partners include:

  • Municipal conservation commissions
  • Town and regional conservation land trusts (focused on natural resource conservation)
  • Statewide and other land trusts that focus on farmland
  • Local and regional community land trusts (focus on affordable housing and land)
  • Town planners and planning departments
  • Regional planners and planning agencies
  • Community conservation organizations
  • Farm link programs
  • Town agricultural commissions and advisory boards
  • Other farmers in the community
  • Public employees managing agricultural land
  • State Departments of Agriculture
  • “Local Food” groups
  • Community supported agriculture (CSA) farm members
  • Neighbors and other members of your community
  • Farm support organizations (e.g., Farm Bureau, Conservation Districts, trade associations, etc.)
  • Conventional lenders
  • Community, public (e.g., USDA/FSA) and alternative lenders
  • Economic development boards and agencies
  • Agricultural service providers
  • Real estate professionals
  • Lawyers, accountants, and other service professionals
  • Religious groups
  • Affordable housing groups
  • Slow Money groups
  • Conservation buyers and values-motivated investors

How community partners can help

The many possible roles for community partners include:

  • Identifying land in the community that is actively farmed or could be brought back into production, land that is  vulnerable to going out of production, or land that might be made available for farming.
  • Educating landowners about the need to keep land active in agriculture, provide information on strategies and resources to keep land in farming and to make it available to farmers.
  • Educating farm seekers in their community about resources for business planning and land access planning.
  • Working directly with seekers on their search, assist with locating properties.
  • Facilitating communication between landowners and seekers, and between landowners and conservation organizations.
  • Educating landowners about options and resources for retirement and transfer planning, easements, leasing, linking options, and alternative tenure models.
  • Developing land use regulations and town plans conducive to continued agriculture and alternative tenure arrangements including co-housing that integrates farming, and farm labor housing.
  • Advocating for affordable housing for farmers and farm labor.
  • Fundraising for easement purchases, or for land purchase (Community Land Trust Purchase, CSA ownership)
  • Financing a farm purchase
  • Providing technical assistance around business planning, lease drafting, financial assessment, land analysis, and related matters.

Often farm seekers tap into and build relationships with a combination of these partners around finding, accessing, and securing farms and farmland. A farm seeker may have a long-term relationship with a community partner, or the connection may be short-term and specific to a particular property. Some of the community partners listed above will play multiple roles and others will have roles that are very narrow. For example:

  • Members of a CSA or other farm customers may have a long-term relationship with you as a farm seeker and may help in writing grants, raising money for a conservation easement, or creatively financing a farm purchase. They may also connect you with different farmland owners.
  • A conservation land trust might help with the purchase of a conservation easement on a property and then have a much more limited role. Or the land trust may hold the land and have a lease with the farmer and, thus, have a more substantial, long-term relationship.
  • Other established farmers in the community may lease or transfer land to you as a new farmer, direct you to landowners who may make their land available, give input based on their knowledge of the conditions of certain fields (drainage, stoniness, flood risk), and also be a mentor.
  • Agricultural commissions and municipal conservation commissions may help link you to available parcels, facilitate communication between you and the property owners, be a source of direct funds for conservation easements, or encourage the municipality to sponsor an application to conservation funders.
  • Some agricultural service and farmer support organizations like Land For Good may help you identify and coordinate your land acquisition team, evaluate properties, and figure out search, access, and financing strategies particular to your needs.

Do not underestimate the value of having other people working with you on farmland access. Work to build relationships with people over time so that they know who you are and understand your needs, capabilities, and character.

Another role for community partners is making sure the town is “farm-friendly;” that is, providing a welcoming environment for farming. Does the town recognize and encourage farming? Does it have regulations that acknowledge farming as a unique type of business and land use? Is the town supportive of protecting agricultural land and committed to helping farming businesses thrive? For a list of local community characteristics you might factor into your search for land, see Is Your Town Farm Friendly? checklist by the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension and the NH Coalition for Sustaining Agriculture.

For other examples of how community partners can work together to help protect farmland and to provide access to that land, see the Stories and Resources sections of this lesson.

Next section – C. CONSERVATION EASEMENTS

Conservation easements: a land affordability tool

Conservation easements can be an important tool used to make farms more affordable for farmers. An easement (sometimes known as a “conservation restriction” or “agricultural conservation restriction”) removes the right to develop the property. This reduces the value of the property, making it less expensive to purchase and therefore potentially more affordable. Typically, an easement is permanent: it stays with the property in perpetuity. There are “term easements,” which remove the development rights for a certain period of time, say 20 years.

Most people think of conservation organizations such as land trusts when they think about conservation easements. But, an easement can be held by federal, state, county, or local government, a land trust or other qualifying charitable organization. A few New England states have public easement programs for agricultural properties. Land trusts often work together with a variety of people and organizations from the private and non-profit sectors as well as federal, state, and local officials on conservation projects. For example, in Athens VT the Vermont Land Trust and the Windmill Hill Pinnacle Association worked with young farmers and several community organizations to conserve and make affordable a farm while providing public access via a trail easement. Government agencies also provided funding to buy a streambank buffer to protect water quality. Read more of this story here.

While partners often come together around conserving a particular piece of land, they also can be motivated by their relationship with the farmers who will be farming this land. For example, the members of one of the first CSA farms in the US, Temple-Wilton Farm (NH), helped raise money and secure land for their farm, including a 99-year lease. Thus, having relationships with at least some of these community partners ahead of time can help you in the process of getting a conservation easement and the necessary funding in place.

It’s not unusual for a conservation easement project to require a complex mix of community partners. One organization may take the lead; another may hold the easement; a third might contribute financially through a bridge loan or contributed dollars, and another might launch a fundraising campaign. They each bring a set of skills, labor, and financial resources to make a farm conservation work.

Here is an example of how an easement may make a farm more affordable:

    $550,000   farm market value

 – $300,000   conservation easement value (appraised value of the development rights)

$ 250,000   conserved value 

The conserved value is the value of the farm with the right to develop removed. This would be the resale value at the time of the easement sale. The farm market value, the value of the development rights and the conserved value are all determined by extensive appraisals conducted by specially qualified professional appraisers, usually contracted by the entity who will hold the conservation easement (development rights). A conservation appraisal can be quite expensive. The cost of an appraisal may be paid by the seller of the easement/land, the prospective buyer of the property, the state, a conservation organization, or patment may be divided among these groups.

Easements can be purchased at the appraised value or at less than market value (a ‘bargain sale’), but not purchased at greater than the appraised value. Appraised values for development rights may range from 20% of the market value to as high as 60%, depending, among other factors, on the development pressure in that real estate market and the visibility or renown of the farm in question. They can be donated by the property owner to a qualifying agency or organization as well. There are tax advantages for the bargain-sale seller or the donor of the easement. But, otherwise, the easement sale is considered the same as the sale of the property from the standpoint of federal and state capital gain taxes, which is a consideration the seller must take into account.

Proceeds can be used to improve the farm business, contribute toward retirement expenses, or settle an estate, for example. It is also possible for a buyer, including a farmer, to work with a conservation organization to place an easement at the time of purchase, thereby reducing the purchase price.

A traditional easement alone will not necessarily prevent the increase of the farm’s value beyond its agricultural value over time. In many places, the desirability of a conserved property will escalate its market value above the agricultural value. So, the land is protected from development, but it doesn’t solve the affordability issue. The Vermont Land Trust and the State of Vermont, as well as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, have incorporated what is known as the Option to Purchase at Agricultural Value (OPAV). Simply put, the OPAV guarantees that the conserved property will only be sold at its agricultural value. Equity Trust is a nonprofit organization that advocates for easements that guarantee perpetual affordability.

Another issue with traditional agricultural easements is that removing the right to develop does not always assure that the land will be farmed, only that it won’t be developed. In some instances, farming was discontinued on conserved farmland. While this was not illegal, it was not necessarily in harmony with the purpose of the easement which is to make the land available for farming. So another legal clause has been incorporated in some newer easements. Often referred to as the “active agriculture” clause, this part of an easement specifies that the land must be farmed. There are provisions for the holder of the easement to take steps if the conserved farm is not actively in production.

Both the perpetual affordability clause and the active agriculture clause are good for farming. But they don’t work for every conservation project. Conserved land is not automatically taxed at its agricultural value rather than its “fair market” development (“highest and best use”) value. To ensure that the land is taxed at its agricultural value, the conserved farmland must be enrolled in the state’s farmland tax program, also frequently known as Current Use. Additionally, not all states include farm buildings in the Current Use Program, so the valuation of these buildings for tax purposes may be higher than expected, and/or the land under these buildings may not be included in the Current Use assessment and be valued at full, fair market value even if conserved. Additionally, any residences along with 2 acre home sites for each residence will generally be taxed at its full fair market value, even if the two acres includes active agricultural land, unless additional town or state subsidies or adjustments are available.

Farmers looking at a conserved property should consider:

  • Who owns the easement?
  • Is the easement enforceable? By whom?
  • What does the easement say… what are the specific provisions?
  • Is it a perpetual or term easement?
  • What might be the impact on current farm practices?
  • What might be the impact on future farm practices?
  • Does the easement reduce the land cost? Does it provide for long-term affordability?
  • How will family members, particularly heirs, feel about an easement?

For more examples of how community partners have worked together to conserve farms and make them more affordable for farmers, see section E. Stories.

Next section – D. RESOURCES

Resources

Next section – E. STORIES

Stories

The stories below are examples of the many ways that community partners can come together to help with farm access.

 

Back to: Acquiring Your Farm