The United States is fortunate to have 50 state “laboratories” with unique programs and policies to sample from. Yet state practitioners seldom have the chance to learn deeply about their peers’ hard-won lessons in order to improve services in our home states.
I was fortunate to have that opportunity this June, when I joined several hundred advocates for intergenerational farmland tenure from around the U.S. at the Changing Lands, Changing Hands Conference. The conference was designed as a forum to discuss best and emerging policies, practices and programs to assist with agricultural land tenure and succession. A great emphasis was placed on fostering information-sharing and constructive dialogues between practitioners in various states.
The conference was hosted by Land For Good in cooperation with the USDA. Since 2004, the nonprofit Land For Good has provided support and guidance for New England farmers, landowners and communities to navigate the complex challenges of land access, tenure and transfer. Their programs include providing individual consultations to beginning farmers for land acquisition and established farmers for farm transfer planning. They have also curated and created materials for a vast toolbox of online resources for farmland transfer, and conducted research on the preparedness of New England’s farms for succession with the American Farmland Trust (“Gaining Insights, Gaining Access”).
I was invited to present on a panel about Land Trusts, Land Access, and Land Protection. This is a topic that I explored with researchers from OSU and Portland State University in writing the 2016 report, “The Future of Oregon’s Agricultural Land.” Among key findings of this report were that 64% of Oregon’s farmland is expected to change hands in the next 20 years and the vast majority of Oregon farms and ranches likely do not have a comprehensive “succession plan” to pass the land and business to the next generation.
One of the key recommendations of this report was the promotion of working lands conservation easements. These are voluntary agreements between landowners and an easement holder like a nonprofit land trust or a Soil and Water Conservation District to permanently retire development rights that the farmer wouldn’t use anyway, like subdivision, aggregate mining, or one of the seven ways that houses can be built on land zoned for Exclusive Farm Use. The agricultural landowner is paid and/or receives a charitable tax deduction for the value of the easement and can still use the land for agricultural production. The land is permanently preserved from fragmentation and development, and it is more affordable to the next generation of farmer or rancher.
Other states, like the ones I presented with on the panel, are far more familiar with working lands conservation easements as a land preservation, succession, and access tool. Oregon, for example, has only used 0.19% of the federal dollars expended through NRCS’s Agricultural Conservation Easement Walnuts. Photo provided by Nellie McAdams Oregon Small Farm News Vol. XII No. 3 Page 6 Program – Agricultural Land Easements (ACEP-ALE). One of the reasons that Oregon has not used easements as much as other states is that Oregon does not have a match program for ACEP-ALE. States with match programs have been able to preserve 45% more acres and utilize 68% more funds from ACEP-ALE.
One thing that Oregon has that is the envy of other states is a land use planning program. Our program has slowed the conversion of agricultural land to non-farm uses. Only half a million acres of Oregon farmland has left agricultural production since the program was established in 1974, compared to almost 700,000 acres leaving agricultural production in Washington in ten years alone. (Washington lost 678,606 acres of agricultural land between 1997 and 2007.) However, this program is under threat in every legislative session and cannot guarantee the safety of the land base that our state’s second largest economic driver depends upon. We are fortunate to have an umbrella of protection over our limited productive lands and we should continue to support the land use system that protects this vulnerable resource.
In moving forward, we should look to other programs, such as Dirt Capital that serves the northeastern states, which directs investor capital in purchases of farmland to young farmers and ranchers. These investors want to contribute to the food system and the rural economies and communities that it supports. And young farmers who have difficulties affording or financing agricultural land need support in funding their endeavors. Oregon could benefit from such an infusion of capital into entrepreneurial equity.
The Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program (HB 3249) would fund working lands easements, which is essential. But we need to think bigger. Looking to other states, we need to expand upon options for beginning farmers and ranchers to own their operations and continue to contribute to the open landscapes and food systems that we value as Oregonians.
Nellie McAdams is on the Board of the Oregon Association of Conservation Districts and is the Farm Preservation Program Director at Rogue Farm Corps, where she helps inform programs for farm and ranch succession planning and the preservation of agricultural land for the next generation. She also works on her family’s hazelnut farm in Gaston, Oregon.