Working Farm Conservation
Saving Vermont’s best farmland has been a cornerstone of our work. We’ve conserved more than 900 farms and farmland parcels across the state.
Farm Conservation Overview
We conserve farmland with a legal document called a conservation easement. This document limits development and subdivision, and protects resources such as farm soils and water quality. Our conservation easements apply to all future owners of the farm.
Many of the farmers we’ve worked with have sold (rather than donated) conservation easements. Proceeds are often used to transfer farms to the next generation, pay down debts, buy land, make improvements, and change business models.
To be able to buy easements from farmers, we need to raise money. This money tends to come from state and federal sources. Sometimes we are able to conserve farms with private grant money and public fundraising.
Most of our farm projects are funded by the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board with matching grants from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
There are minimum criteria for all funding applications. The farm must be a viable operation or have a sound plan for getting into operation. High-quality farmland is also eligible.
It usually takes around two years to conserve a farm when public funding is involved.
People who own farmland and are interested in donating a conservation easement should read our easement donation page.
What follows is more detailed information for farmers who wish to sell a farm conservation easement.
What is a farm conservation easement?
A conservation easement is recorded in the local land records, just like a deed. While it permanently limits development, landowners continue to own, manage, and pay taxes on their land. Landowners can pass the land along to a family member or sell it.
The easement outlines what is and is not allowed. Practices important to farming are encouraged, while those that harm it, such as removing topsoil, are prohibited.
When the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) contributes money towards farm conservation, they require a plan that protects soil and water. Farmers must also comply with state and federal Required Agricultural Practices.
All publicly funded farm easements include a provision that gives the easement holders (such as the Vermont Land Trust) the option to buy the land at its agricultural value should the owner intend to sell the farm to a non-farmer or family member. The goal is to keep farmland in production.
Which Farms Are Most Likely to Get Funding?
While selling a farm conservation easement is a competitive process, all types of farms can receive funding—from small vegetable operations to big dairies. Parcels that are additions to a conserved farm and high-quality bare land parcels are also eligible.
The most important question is: “How likely is this farmland to stay in production into the future?” The answer depends on:
- Resources: Soils are prime or statewide-significant and there is potential for diverse agricultural uses.
- Location: The land is in a farming community or near other conserved farms.
- Management: There are good resource-management practices.
- Infrastructure: If there is infrastructure, it is in good condition.
Because each farm and family is different, we encourage you to talk to us even if these criteria are not a perfect fit.
Determining the Easement’s Value
If a funding application passes the first phase of the process, the next step is to determine what will be included in, or excluded from, the easement. Acreage, rights to build farm-labor housing, water-quality protection, and whether to allow public access are examples of what may be discussed.
After this, the easement’s value is determined through an independent appraisal. This establishes two values: the value of the farm with and without an easement. The difference between these is the value of the easement.
For example: The Smith Farm has an unrestricted market value of $500,000. However, with a conservation easement limiting its use, it is appraised at $300,000. The difference—$200,000—is the value of the conservation easement.
There are also per-acre, per-project limits to what can be funded.
Final Application, Funding, and Closing
If the landowner accepts the valuation, the next step is to sign a purchase and sale agreement with the Vermont Land Trust.
We submit the grant application to a funding organization (usually the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board), which decides the projects it will fund based on farms’ agricultural resources and the amount of money available.
If funding is approved, the final legal documents and management plans are completed. This can take 6-10 months. Afterwards, a closing is scheduled.
Because conservation easements are permanent, it is very important that landowners understand what they are agreeing to.
During the application process and before making a final decision, all landowners should consult with their lawyer, tax advisor, and lender.
The sale of a conservation easement often involves income, capital gains, and estate tax issues; impacts existing or planned farm financing; raises business planning issues; and/or involves legal issues.
If you want to discuss your particular situation or learn more, please contact one of our conservation staff members.
You can also download our publication, Farmland Conservation, which offers more detailed information on the process.
Interested in conserving your land?
Contact one of our conservation staff members.