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Soil, Toil, and Time: the Basics of Farmland Conservation

farm with cowsFrom our Fall 2013 newsletter. By Allaire Diamond.

Vermont's agricultural landscape stretches across broad valleys and unfolds amid verdant wooded hillsides, nestles in riverbends, and knits itself together with hedgerows and lines of hay bales. Our farms weave together the history and potential of the land to produce food, support local economies, and maintain rural culture. Yet we can't take farmland for granted.

According to VLT's Allen Karnatz, who has been working on farmland conservation for nearly two decades, good agricultural land "is a finite resource, and we are losing it rapidly." Despite these losses, Vermont has led the nation in conserving farmland: While the U.S. lost 23 million acres of farmland to development between 1982 and 2007, Vermonters conserved three acres for every acre converted to development: more than any other state.

VLT has been a major player in this effort, conserving nearly 800 farms and farmland parcels. From 25-acre vegetable farms to 500-acre dairies, we protect all kinds of farms. In so doing, we ensure that the dairy core of our agricultural economy remains strong, while providing room for new farm businesses to test the waters.

If you shop in stores that sell Vermont-made food, you will see many products from VLT-conserved farms: Kimball Brook Farm milk, Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, Butterworks yogurt, Vermont Smoke and Cure Five Knives meats, and Grafton Cheddar, just to name a few.

 

When we conserve a farm, we think about the present and the future. Today, we may be helping a farm family stay on their land or reinvest in their business, but we also take the long view, keeping high-quality farmland available for future generations. When we assess a project, we look to features that suggest lasting suitability for agriculture —often, the features that drew farmers in the first place.


Protecting Our Best Soils

Though it may involve dozens of people and take 18 months or more to conserve a farm, it all begins with one key ingredient: soil. A farm's soil is made up of varying combinations of sand, silt, and clay. Soil types, along with the land's slope, can make or break a farm. Much of Vermont's best farmland is on clay soils, which once formed the bottom of glacial Lake Vermont.

"The first thing anyone does is look at a soils map," said Al about VLT's approach to farm conservation. "Soils were mapped in each Vermont county in a massive, largely on-the-ground effort in the mid-to-late 20th century." These soils are ranked by their agricultural potential.

'Prime' agricultural soils are top-ranked because they meet requirements involving drainage, moisture, pH, slope, depth, absence of large rocks, climate, and frequency of flooding. Next best are 'statewide' soils, which meet some of these requirements, but not all. "We see protecting prime and statewide soils as essential to the future of farming," said Al.

Over the past 35 years, we've conserved about 10% of the 1.3 million acres of prime and statewide soils in Vermont. While an impressive number, there is clearly a lot more farm conservation to be done.


A Farm of One's Own

The sale of a conservation easement recently helped Leon "Skip" and Alane Clark buy a 101-acre farm in Pawlet they had been leasing for their 165-cow dairy. When their lease was almost up, they learned that the owners, Perry and Becky Waite, were looking to sell. Both the Clarks and the Waites worked with VLT to conserve the land so that it would be more affordable to the Clarks. The Clarks jumped at the chance to join the large community of conserved farms in the Mettowee Valley, a veritable green necklace of protected land. They now own their farm, which is made up of 94% prime and 4% statewide soils.

Map of the Clark Farm

Skip emphasizes that conserving the land helped him and Alane afford it. The Clarks received a one-time payment for the land's development rights, and applied that money toward the farm purchase.

Skip's experienced perspective says a lot about how conserved farms hold their value: "Twenty years ago, I would have been concerned about the collateral value to our lender and whether the farm would continue to increase in value, but time has proven those [concerns] out."

In the Mettowee Valley, where VLT has conserved 31 farms and farmland parcels, farmers know the land around them will continue to be farmed and that strong local networks of mutual support keep the land's agricultural viability high. Now, Skip says that "my favorite part of the easement is keeping the parcel together for the future."


New Directions in Ecology

Vermont farms are often a mix of fields and woodlands, with streams, rivers, and other wetland features. For the past decade, VLT has increasingly worked to integrate ecological protections with farmland conservation. We now assess these features and work with farmers to develop language that will protect these special areas, usually by limiting land management practices such as timber harvesting or farming. We work to enable rivers to meander naturally across the landscape, and protect features like rare plants, vernal pools, and uncommon forest types.

 

The Clark family in milking parlorSustaining Farming into the Future

While VLT's early farm easements made sure that the land could not be developed, they did not ensure that the land would be priced affordably. As interest in estate properties increased, we began to look at ways to make sure that conserved farmland remained in agriculture. To do this, we developed language in our farm easements that gives VLT the option to buy a conserved farm at its agricultural value if it is at risk of being sold to a non-farmer.

We also developed our Farmland Access Program, which helps people with farming experience and solid business plans buy their first farm at a price they can afford. We have many different ways of doing this. Sometimes we buy land outright as it comes on the market, solicit applications from farmers looking for land, and look for conservation funding. Other times we connect farmers with people looking to conserve and sell farmland.

These projects have resulted in some thriving new businesses, such as Bread & Butter Farm in South Burlington and Shelburne, Elmer Farm in East Middlebury, Sweetland Farm in Norwich, and Liberty Farm in Poultney. "These lands are now making a real contribution to the local food sector," said Jon Ramsay, who directs the program. "It's amazing to see the reinvestment that the farmers are making."

The Farmland Access Program also helped Adam Hausmann find a farm of his own. For 11 years, Adam's Berry Farm operated on leased land in the fertile soils of Burlington's Intervale (also conserved with VLT). Yet the soils' fertility results from flooding, and flooding eventually led Adam to seek drier land of his own. While floodplains are sought after for annual crops, Adam, as a perennial grower with long-lived plants, needed a new location. VLT connected Adam with longtime VLT supporter and farmland owner Nancy Hinsdale. She sold a conservation easement on 56 acres and then sold the land to Adam at its agricultural value.

The monetary value of a conservation easement is the difference between the market value of the land (with full potential for development) and its value if it is restricted to agricultural use. Professional appraisers determine this value. In Nancy's case, she generously sold the easement for less than its appraised value.

Adam Hausmann with berriesThe sale of the conservation easement made it possible for Adam to buy land in Charlotte, a highly desirable area for country residences. "Purchasing a piece of land with a conservation easement resonated with my values of protecting open space, preserving farmland for future generations, and securing our local food system," said Adam. This season, he's working to establish thousands of blueberry, raspberry, and strawberry plants on his new farm.

The land and the farmer produce food for the community through a delicate dance. VLT's major focus remains on the land itself, though new programs to support farm development and enterprises are emerging. "Farming is a risky business," said Al. "Some farms will be more successful than others. And farming trends change: 150 years ago Vermont was covered with sheep! But if we conserve the land, we know it will be available for succeeding generations as our agricultural economy evolves."

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