The Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund's Farm to Plate study has identified farmland affordability as the largest obstacle that farmers face. Experienced farmers with strong track records are often unable to compete with non-farmers for expensive farmland.
While the conservation of farmland makes sure that the land will remain available for the next generation of farmers, it has become increasingly clear that conservation alone cannot guarantee farmland affordability. Something needed to be done to keep land affordable for farmers with viable commercial agricultural operations and discourage conversion of good farmland into "estate" type properties.
To address this, we started adding an Affordability Option to the legal language in farm conservation easements. The Affordability Option gives the holders of the conservation easement (the Vermont Land Trust, The Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture) the option to purchase the farm at its agricultural value if the farm will otherwise be sold to a non-farmer.
In order to purchase a farm protected with the Affordability Option, a buyer must be a "qualified farmer." Qualified farmers are those that either 1) make at least 50 percent of their gross income from farming or 2) have a business plan and the experience to operate a commercial farming operation suitable to the farm property. The sale to a family member is exempt from the Affordability Option.
Nearly 200 conserved farms in Vermont have been protected with the Affordability Option. This strategy has worked successfully as a deterrent to farmers selling conserved land to non-farmers. To date, 70 farms with the Affordability Option have been sold; in only one instance did the co-holders of the easement need to exercise their rights under the provision. In this instance, the co-holders purchased the farm at its agricultural value and marketed it to qualified farmers.
Exercising the Affordability Option is sometimes the only way to make sure that farmland stays affordable to Vermont farmers, securing both our public investment in farmland conservation and Vermont's agricultural economy.