Farming Magazine - January, 2012


Forests and Farmland

Preserving the future
By John Hibma

In many regions of the U.S., the best forests and farmland are being converted into residential or commercial properties. Land developers have long known that farmland offers the most convenient locations to build houses. Many acres of once-fertile and productive farmland, along with open space and forests, have disappeared.

There are many federal, state and private organizations that exist for the preservation of open space and farmland.

Federal Agencies:

USDA/Farm Services Agency

USDA/Natural Resources Conservation Service

USDA/Rural Development

The best place to start with state agencies is the state department of agriculture of the state in which you live.

Private and nonprofit organizations:

American Farmland Trust

Trust for Public Land

Working Lands Alliance

Much of New England, and Connecticut in particular, is renowned for its farms and farmland intermingled with beautiful riparian habitat and sylvan landscapes. Even though it's the third smallest state in the country, Connecticut maintains a vibrant agricultural industry that produced sales of $551 million in 2007 (USDA), while at the same time being one of the most densely populated states with 700 people per square mile. The total economic impact of agriculture in Connecticut in 2007 was estimated to be about $3 billion - generating around $1,000 of economic activity per Connecticut resident.

Many, though, have either forgotten or are unaware of the economic value that agriculture brings to the state, and that agriculture is still the underpinning to the economic stability of many towns in New England. More recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in agriculture with the "locavore" movement and farmers' market programs. Farmers and nonagricultural residents now recognize the importance of New England's limited supply of farmland and keeping it from being forever lost to commercial development.

The Woodstock region in northeastern Connecticut is one of many rural areas throughout the state that are in danger of "growing" more houses than crops. In spite of the residential growth there, Woodstock remains one of the most agriculturally focused townships in the state. Dawn Adiletta is a Woodstock resident and an advocate of preserving farmlands and open space from indiscriminant development. She says there was a broad belief that had developed over the years that agriculture was mostly dead in New England, and the farms left here were just little hobby farms that didn't contribute much to the economy; the only successful farms left in the country being the mega-farms. Consequently, farmland was slowly and quietly disappearing around Woodstock, and that wasn't the vision of many in the community.

Adiletta started talking to some farmers in the area and was invited to attend a meeting of the Working Lands Alliance, a nonprofit organization designed to show legislators in Connecticut that agriculture was not dead, but very much alive. The Working Lands Alliance is an organized lobbying group whose job it is to keep legislators informed about pro-agricultural decisions, enabling owners of agricultural lands and their supporters to organize and share information and strategies to preserve farmlands.

"All of a sudden I learned that agriculture in Connecticut was not just a nice, sweet little hobby, but rather was a multimillion dollar industry, very large and very vibrant," explained Adiletta. "Agriculture was still very viable and continuing to make significant economic, cultural and aesthetic contributions in the state."

Ironically, though, she learned that even as farmland was slowly disappearing, they still contribute much of the tax revenues to a community. Typically, the cost of services to residential properties lose 20 cents on the dollar as opposed to farmland, which generates a 70 percent surplus.

"I learned that open space, and farmland in particular, actually subsidizes everyone else's tax lists," she added.

Poorly planned development essentially fragments the remaining farmland, making it difficult for the remaining farmers to stay in business. Developing and preserving tracts of farmland will add to the economic stability of Connecticut towns. As a result the efforts of Adiletta and others, Woodstock was one of the first communities in the state to create a "right to farm" ordinance, followed soon after with the formation of an open space land acquisition and farmland preservation committee in 2000, of which she is currently a member.

According to Adiletta, the Woodstock Open Space Land Acquisition Committee is charged with recommending specific properties to the town voters to either accept or participate with other partners in the purchase of development rights. She stressed that the goal of preserving farmland and open space in the town of Woodstock is not about being antidevelopment, halting any further housing or business development.

Central to the entire process of preserving farmland and open space is a landowner's willingness to see his/her land placed into a preservation program. Fortunately, farmers (who are often land rich and cash poor) understand the continued agricultural importance of their land even when they are nearing retirement or when economic circumstances require that they leave the business. But so often, developers are quick to grab up tracts of land, particularly those tracts that are easily accessible, offering the farmer a deal that's difficult to pass up.

In 2005, a situation occurred in Woodstock when the Eddy family found themselves unable to continue dairy farming due to a number of challenging years of low milk prices and escalating operating costs. This property had been farmed continuously since the 1730s, with the Eddy family having worked it for three generations. Not being aware of other options available to them, the Eddys were ready to sign a deal with a developer.

The Eddys didn't necessarily want to sell to a developer and see their property, which consists of about 110 acres, carved up and developed with nearly 40 homes planned, explained Adiletta. They already had a down payment on another piece of property they intended moving to, and there was no one else offering them the kind of money they needed for their land until the Trust for Public Land came along.

The Trust for Public Land is an organization that enables towns like Woodstock to purchase properties for preservation by providing money when it's needed quickly. While it can be considered a "white knight" that helps buy time for people interested in bringing their land into preservation, the Trust for Public Land is not in the business of owning land. They are a rotating fund. If other land acquisition monies cannot be obtained in a reasonable amount of time, the trust will turn around and put that land on the market again, making it accessible to a developer.

"They gave us the funds and time to contact the state to put it in the rotation for the PDR [purchase of development rights] program to raise private funds to meet the difference," said Adiletta. "All they were offering us was time, but it was necessary time, and we couldn't have made it happen without them."

The Eddys received the money they needed, and then agreed to accept payment for their property in a series of payments. Today the land is still in agricultural use, having been purchased by a vegetable grower. Since the land remains in private hands, it continues to pay the same level of taxes that it did before.

The process of preserving open space and farmland can take a number of different paths. State, national and private organizations provide advice and financial assistance to individuals contemplating placing property in a preservation program. One of the most popular programs is the PDR program, which has been in place since at least the 1960s. Connecticut's PDR program is administered by the Department of Agriculture and is called the Connecticut Farmland Preservation Program. There are numerous options available to different people. Some farmers are using the PDR program as a business opportunity to expand and improve their business.

Dairy farmer Ned Ellis' grandfather began farming the Hebron, Conn., property in 1903. Ellis sold the development rights of 240 acres of his land in 1999, making use of both a bargain sale and an innovative like-kind exchange. The bargain sale allowed Ellis to take a charitable tax deduction equal to the difference in price from the time the property was appraised to the time the development rights were sold. The like-kind transaction was a tax-free swap of similar property that was adjacent to his, which he was already leasing. Some of the proceeds from the sale of development rights were used to purchase the 170 acres of adjacent farmland, as well as making improvements to the existing dairy farm facilities. Ellis has both the satisfaction of knowing that some of his property will always remain in agriculture, while at the same time he's able to purchase other properties that will help him remain in business.

Federal funds for land preservation are available through the Natural Resources Conservation System (NRCS), the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Farm and Ranchland Preservation Program (FRPP). The American Farmland Trust (AFT) is a national nonprofit organization that helps farmers and ranchers protect their land. The Connecticut Farmland Trust (CFT) is a private statewide land trust that is dedicated to preserving Connecticut's farmland.

All of these organizations, often working together, provide a variety of options by which farmland, forests and open spaces can be preserved from development, enabling the next generation of farmers to continue farming. The preservation of forests and open spaces will help preserve the environment, as well as create areas for recreational uses.

Obviously, securing and preserving agricultural land requires a certain level of activism. As a way to keep landowners aware of the options available to them, the open space and acquisition committee in Woodstock periodically sends out a letter to landowners letting them know that there are resources available to assist them. In addition, the committee participates in the Woodstock Fair and other public events focused on agriculture so people know that these types of organizations exist.

"Some people make an outright donation of land," said Adiletta. The process can happen very quickly or may take many years. Over a period of time, members of the committee will contact people who have expressed an interest in selling the development rights to their property. "In some cases I make it to the kitchen table," she said. "In [other] cases I make it to the kitchen table with an agent from the state, and sometimes we make it all the way to the voting booth."

Woodstock has a line item in its budget for open space and farmland preservation, but it does not budget for any percentage of land acquisition. Rather, it leverages town monies so that it only pays a percentage of the preservation costs by partnering with state and federal agencies. In the case of the Eddy property purchase, the town of Woodstock paid 25 percent of the purchase price with 50 percent coming from state public funds and the remaining 25 percent coming from federal public funds. Essentially, every purchase is considered on a case-by-case basis, depending on the perceived value of the property and the potential future use of that property.

Most economists will agree that in order to maintain a healthy economy, whether it be local or regional, there must be a mixture of industry and agriculture that will facilitate a robust exchange of goods and services. Healthy local economies still provide the foundation of a national economy. With agriculture contributing so much to tax revenues, as well as the state's overall economy, it is important that every town in Connecticut should develop an inventory of the most productive farmland within its jurisdiction.

Even in these times of economic uncertainty and depressed real estate markets, it is critical that we not lose sight of the need to preserve, protect and utilize agricultural land. Ultimately, every geographic region must consider the natural resources that are available and how important they are to supporting and sustaining a local economy. History has shown that civilizations that lose their soils will eventually fail.

The author is a dairy nutritional consultant and works for Central Connecticut Farmer's Cooperative in Manchester, Conn.