Unpaved with good intentions

New easements keep farmland in production despite spiraling property values

  • A basket of produce ready for pick-up from their community-sponsored agriculture service

    Photo Courtesy Live Power Community Farm and Jered Lawson
  • Stephen Decater, with draft horses Dolly and Queen, works the land of his family's oil-free Live Power Community Farm near San Francisco

    Photo Courtesy Live Power Community Farm and Jered Lawson

When Stephen and Gloria Decater decided to buy the 40-acre spread they’d been farming for two decades, the price was daunting. Even in the mid-1990s, land values in Northern California’s Round Valley were already more than double what the income from their organic vegetables could cover.

After months of research, they devised a way to slash the cost to less than half the market value by partnering with a Massachusetts-based land trust, which paid 54 percent of the total price.

It’s an unusually complex arrangement: The Equity Trust’s control goes far beyond the usual restrictions that bar landowners from subdividing and developing. The conservation easement requires the Decaters — and all future owners — to cultivate the land organically, and earn more than half their income by doing so.

The Decaters’ farm is at the vanguard of a new trend that seeks not merely to save Western land from strip malls and ticky-tacky suburbs, but also to keep it in productive agriculture. Zoning and conservation easements, the key tools for protecting undeveloped farmland, have succeeded in preserving a scenic pastoral backdrop. But they haven’t kept the land within farmers’ financial reach.

Land prices skyrocket

The biggest threat to farm affordability comes from the growing appeal of rural estates with hundred-acre backyards, particularly among the very wealthy. City dwellers are also cashing out of inflated real estate markets and setting up shop in rural areas, often with help from the Internet.

"When someone puts a high-end home on a parcel, that value is never coming down, and it makes that property unavailable to an agricultural buyer ever again," says Tony Nelson, stewardship coordinator for the Marin Agricultural Land Trust. "Where the new landowners have no background in agriculture and aren’t particularly interested in agriculture, we are concerned that those properties will be lost to production."

Nelson rattles off the reasons to care about local farming — consumer interest in local food that has doubled the number of farmers’ markets in a decade, the inefficiency of transporting food long distances, the importance of agriculture to local cultures and economies. "Preserving agriculture is our main purpose," says Nelson. "We want to ensure that we’re not paying just for open space."

To help put a lid on land prices, the 26-year-old trust has tightened its restrictions. Four years ago, it started adding language to its easements limiting the size of new homes. But even a 3,000-square-foot cap wasn’t enough to keep property values within the reach of farmers. So one of the trust’s latest easements requires ranch owners Jim and Margaret Moore to farm their thousand-acre, $4.25 million spread.

The Moores, who live 30 miles away in San Francisco, have leased their ranch to a local cattleman. For promising to farm and selling development rights to all but three homesites, the former Wall Street investment banker and his wife pocketed $1.7 million — $1 million of it from state environmental bonds and the rest from private donors.

Getting creative

Brian Crawford, Marin County’s deputy director of planning, cautions that these "affirmative easements" may prove difficult to monitor and enforce. It’s easy to visit once a year and make sure the landowner hasn’t built five homes on a cul-de-sac. It’s a lot harder to prove that the land is no longer being farmed.

So other groups have taken a different tack in trying to keep tractors plying the ground instead of bulldozers. Colorado’s Boulder County leases 22,000 acres, about a third of its open space, to 75 local growers. And when Seattle’s Puget Consumers Cooperative heard from one of its suppliers — known for his organic carrots — that 70-odd acres he leased were about to go on the market, they launched a drive to purchase the land themselves. With members donating most of the $100,000 down payment, the co-op formed a nonprofit that bought the land, sold a wetland portion to the state wildlife agency, and leased the rest to the farmer for 30 years. The flow of carrots has continued unabated.

Since then, the PCC Farmland Trust has raised more than $1 million and helped to buy two other farms, mostly leased to farmers with an option to buy. All the land that passes through the trust’s hands, whether leased or re-sold, must be cultivated organically.

Back in California, the Decaters are at the peak of their 22nd growing season, making weekly deliveries to the 180 households who buy their tomatoes, corn, and other produce. One Saturday in July, as the farm apprentices worked past the usual 1 p.m. quitting time, Stephen Decater mused on what he and his wife had achieved — and what they had to give up.

According to the agreement, they will be able to pass on the farm to their three sons only if the kids are willing to stay and raise crops. If no one wants to farm, the family will be forced to sell or lease to someone who does. In fact, for the first 90 years of the easement, if the Decaters stop farming, the trust can force them to sell at a set price.

Decater says he had to think long and hard about that, but in the end, he’s come to peace with it. "You put so much into a place, you want to know your descendants can stay there," he says. "But there’s something to be said for handing it on to another human being with that passion (for farming). A farmer without land is like a cripple."

Seth Zuckerman ([email protected]) is co-author of Salmon Nation: People, Fish, and Our Common Home.

The Property and Environment Research Center of Bozeman, Montana, supported the research for this article through a Lone Mountain Fellowship.

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