Saving the farm: Conservation easements

By Renee Ciulla

Green rolls of open hills dotted with lines of solid, red silos and white grazing sheep appeal to and please even those who aren’t passionate about farming themselves. In reality though, development is encroaching heavily and swiftly across the U.S., luring land owners with large bundles of cash. One effective way to prevent this development is by placing land in an agricultural or conservation easement. This voluntary agreement allows a landowner to limit the type or amount of development on their property while retaining private ownership. Furthermore, it ensures open space and possibly agricultural production forever. In general, farmers and conservation groups determine unique features about a particular parcel of land such as places that are suitable for buildings based on the size and configuration of the land, or places that should never be cultivated, such as areas close to a waterway. Decisions depend not only on the current farm plan, but also on potential farming plans of future generations.

In the case of John Hutton, owner of Coppal House Farm in Lee, New Hampshire, the lack of a conservation easement on his leased land meant a sudden suspension of his livelihood. Hutton and his family had leased the land in Stratham, NH for 25 years. Hutton held a year-to-year lease and was told, “As long as you plant a crop you can be here to harvest it.” John learned one winter after his harvest that the owners had decided to sell the land to a golf course developer.

“Almost 500 acres were for the golf course and several housing developments,” says Hutton. Not one to dwell on the negative, John and his wife picked up their life and worked tirelessly to start anew on a purchased piece of farmland. The owners were never interested in an easement, but John believes if they had been offered a tax break they might have been. These days Hutton feels that farmers are smartly negotiating for longer-term leases, but in the past it was common for year-to-year. It is still not unusual for beginning farmers to enter into these shorter-term arrangements. Coppal House Farm is a remarkable reminder of how land placed in conservation not only preserves land for lands sake, but for the continuance of a farmer’s livelihood.

Dave Trumble, owner of Good Earth Farm in Weare, NH purchased land that was already being placed in an easement with the Piscataquog Land Conservancy. The previous owner wanted to make sure the land was not developed into multiple houses and, in this case, Dave was fortunate to be involved in negotiating the actual terms of the easement. As a multi-family CSA, Dave produces a serious amount of food from his five greenhouses and fields. The Trumbles wanted to make sure agriculture could still be practiced on the land without violating any terms. With an easement on the land, everyone benefited. “The purchase price of the land was lowered, the seller was assured the land would not be turned into a multi-house development and the land conservancy had its conservation goals met,” says Trumble.

Dave recognizes many farmers have valid concerns regarding easements. “They want to make sure that the easement does not constrain their ability to farm,” says Trumble. “Also, farmers may view their land as a ‘retirement account’ or their hedge against disability. So, many farmers view the possibility of selling off a far corner of their farm as one possible financial hedge in old age or building a home for their children who might want to farm the land.” But, says Trumble, that’s the point of negotiating the terms of the easement, “Allowing for subsequent development of houses is not automatically a bad thing,” he says. “It could actually help keep the farm going from generation to generation.” Following this line of reasoning, the Trumbles requested a "one building" clause to be inserted as well as one acre of land excluded from the easement. Their two quickly-growing children might appreciate this down the road.

The Griswold’s of Velvet Pasture had two major motivations for entering into an easement: one historical, one financial.

Jim Griswold, owner of Velvet Pastures Elk Ranch in Lee, NH, signed up for an easement program not usually seen in the Northeast. The property has been placed in a Grasslands Reserve Program easement through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). “The USDA had originally intended to protect vast quantities of open prairie [out West],” says Griswold. “We managed to get in to the program because we had a ‘significant’ amount of open land (>40 contiguous acres).”

The process for Velvet Pastures took about a year to complete and this particular easement has very clear limitations. “The land has to be retained as grassland and mowed at least once per year,” says Griswold. “Only grasses can be grown – no orchards, no row crops, no greenhouses, no fish ponds, etc. Barley, wheat and rye are all grasses, and it would seem as reasonable to me to grow those as it is to have bluegrass, timothy, red clover and alfalfa which are out there now.  If we move out of raising elk or other livestock that need hay, we may try barley or rye for the malt and bread markets.”

The Griswold’s had two major motivations for entering into an easement: one historical, one financial. Their land had been farmed since the end of the 18th century. The house and barn, built in the late 1780s are a key part of Lee’s history and tradition, and they felt that this should not be lost. Financially, the easement allowed them to pay off their property debt.  Similar to the Trumbles, they placed 50 of the 56 acres of land into permanent easement, retaining 6 acres for a house lot.

Randy Warren of Warren Farm in Barrington, NH says his father, Richard, was determined to pursue protection of the family farm during the years he was alive. Richard grew up on the original family farm in Ithaca, NY and had watched the farm get pieced off until almost nothing was left. Working with the Barrington Conservation Commission, they were able to secure a conservation fund of $10, 000 to help with easement work. Additionally, in 1989, the State of NH signed a conservation easement protecting 243 acres from being sub-divided or developed. The easement is held by the town, and is overseen by the state and federal government.

Unfortunately, Randy’s mother was diagnosed with cancer in October of 1989 and died the following December. But, Randy explains, “Her final days were spent proudly knowing she had done a very good deed.” And when Randy’s father passed away, he was secure in the knowledge that the farm would always be continued. “So thanks to the easement,” Randy laughs, “we are still here. My wife and I are now offering the farm for sale and we do so with a clear conscience because of the easement.”

A conservation easement at Flag Hill allowed them to expand their operations by purchasing needed equipment.

For liquor lovers who subscribe to the importance of local, artisan production, the story of Flag Hill Winery and Distillery can’t be emphasized enough. Owner Frank Reinhold had a longtime dream of protecting the winery’s land against future housing or commercial development. Through the New Hampshire Land and Community Heritage Investment Program (LCHIP),  the NRCS Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP), and with the partnership of the Lamprey River Advisory Committee and the Southeast Land Trust of New Hampshire, 114 acres of Flag Hill property were secured in perpetuity in 2002. For those who are now enjoying such delicacies as General John Stark vodka, White Mountain Moonshine and Sugar Maple liqueur, the investment for most of the equipment associated with the expansion of the winery into the new arena of distillation was obtained from the sale of the property rights purchased through the LCHIP program that now protect the land.

As a land owner, it can be confusing to differentiate the roles played by towns, non-profits, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), land trusts and conservation commissions in establishing conservation easements. NRCS, for example, provides financial assistance for conservation easements through the Federal Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, the Grasslands Reserve Program, the Healthy Forests Reserve Program, and Wetlands Reserve Program. Furthermore, NRCS works with partners to provide training on its easement programs.

Recently, Amber Acres in Durham, NH, was protected from development by a conservation easement.  The Durham conservation commission worked with conservation partners to see the project through to completion. The Exeter-based Southeast Land Trust of New Hampshire holds the easement and intends to sell or lease the property to a farmer with plans for active agricultural production. The Town of Durham holds an executory interest in the easement, with the NRCS holding a contingent right of enforcement. Under FRPP, NRCS always cooperates with a local entity who acts as the primary easement holder. While NRCS must maintain certain statutory requirements, this relationship allows local land trusts to craft a more personal and place-based easement deed for the farm. In the event these smaller local organizations cannot fulfill their stewardship duties, NRCS has the right and responsibility to assure the farm is maintained according to the original easement language.

“Open space benefits everyone through improved water and air quality, wildlife habitat, recreation, scenic views, lower cost of community services, food production (wild and farmed) and disaster mitigation,” says Rick Ellsmore, New Hampshire NRCS State Conservationist. “It’s extremely important for individuals and communities to protect important agricultural land like this from development for New Hampshire to keep its rural character and support its number one industry—tourism.” Lower taxes are another benefit. New Hampshire towns, in particular pay less in taxes if they leave land in open space as opposed to developing it. And ultimately, our most basic needs of food, water and shelter are derived from this open space. Forward-thinking municipalities and landowners are beginning to see the urgent need to protect these local resources in order to maximize food security.

Lastly, from the perspective of the land conservation community, it’s important to understand that not every property can or will be protected. The NRCS and its partners seek to protect properties that provide the best opportunity in terms of specific resource targets. “We can’t expect to keep pace with development,” Ellsmore explains, “but using strategic purchases and local engagement, we find opportunities to secure these resources in a very frugal and purposeful way for the maximum benefit to people, wildlife, and natural resources.”

Renee Ciulla is a vegetable grower, teacher and writer based on the New Hampshire Seacoast. Besides growing and eating local food, she loves being in the mountains and finding mountain goats.

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