Thursday, October 3, 2013

Keep Farmland for Farmers

From The New York Times:

By LINDSEY LUSHER SHUTE and BENJAMIN SHUTE Published: September 30, 2013

CLERMONT, N.Y. — WHEN we went looking in upstate New York for a home for our farm, we feared competition from deep-pocketed developers, a new subdivision or a big-box store. These turned out to be the least of our problems. 

Though the farms best suited for our vegetables were protected from development by conservation easements, we discovered that we couldn’t compete, because conserved farmland is open to all buyers — millionaires included. 

Easements are intended to protect farmland, water, animal habitat, historic sites and scenic views, and so they are successful in keeping farms from becoming malls and subdivisions. But they don’t stop Wall Street bankers from turning them into private getaways, with price tags to match. 

Few bankers farm; long days with little pay lack appeal. A new report by the National Young Farmers Coalition, a group we helped start, reveals that one-quarter of the land trusts that oversee these conservation easements have seen protected land go out of production. Why? A nonfarmer had bought it. 

Still, tax incentives in New York encourage nonfarmers to rent their land to farmers, so you would think suitable land would be easy to find. 

Most landlords, however, offer only short-term leases. They want peace and quiet; they don’t want vegetable or livestock operations that bring traffic, workers, noise and fences. But long-term land tenure is essential for vegetable and livestock growers, who need years to build soil fertility, improve pasture and add infrastructure. Only farms that grow low-value animal feed crops like hay, corn or beans are attracted to one-year leases. 

Once well-off city residents who are looking for second homes buy the land, farmer ownership is over. After they’ve added an air-conditioned home, a heated pool and an asphalt drive, the value increases so much that no working farmer can afford it. The farm, and its capacity to feed a community, is lost. 

Thankfully, there is a solution. The Vermont Land Trust and the State of Massachusetts are keeping farmland in the hands of farmers through stricter conservation easements that limit who can own it, which keeps farms affordable and deters farm sales to nonfarmers.

To qualify, the Vermont Land Trust requires that a farmer derive at least half of his or her income from farming, or have a business plan that demonstrates an ability to run a viable farm business. The trust has the option to step in and buy the land at its agricultural value and find a suitable farmer if the seller can’t (or won’t) find a qualified buyer. 

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