Matt Lohr: What are you doing to protect your family farm?
It is a common issue in Virginia and just about every other state: what to do to protect your farm from development or any other situation that would take it out of production. Sometimes this occurs because a farmer gets an offer he or she simply can’t refuse. Certainly no one would deny any farmer the right to make a nice profit, especially if it’s just before retirement. (Not that farmers every really retire.)
All too often, however, the life-changing event comes from a transition issue, not a monetary offer. What does a farmer do when the kids are grown and settled nicely into non-farm life, especially if the “kids” currently running the farm are 65 or 70 years old and the farm owner is 90 plus?
Here in Virginia, it is still correct to say, as we have done for 400 years, that agriculture is the heart of our economy. It remains our largest industry – by far – and few would argue that well-managed farm and forest lands produce significant environmental benefits, require little or no public services and make significant contributions to local economies, tourism, recreation opportunities and our quality of life.
That being said, it is also true that few people would argue about the difficulty of keeping working farm land in production. I must admit that while attending the ceremonial session of the 2007 legislature in Williamsburg as a state delegate, these thoughts were crowding my mind even in the midst of the 400th anniversary of Jamestown. The Jamestown Colony was a success and is known today as the first permanent English-speaking settlement in the New World for one reason: agriculture. The fact that those early settlers did not starve to death was the chief reason the colony endured.
So here we are 406 years later. Agriculture is still our leading industry, but we continue to lose valuable farmland. The rate of loss is not as alarming as a decade ago, but it is still a concern. And I would like to begin my columns in 2013 with some thoughts on that loss and how we can combat it.
The competition for land remains strong in Virginia, and land continues to be converted from agricultural uses to other uses. The most recent information from the National Resources Inventory (NRI) indicates that between 2002 and 2007, Virginia lost 60,800 acres of agricultural land directly to developed uses. The sad truth here is that once land is paved over, it never returns to agricultural production.
We occasionally hear of small successes contrary to that statement. A few years ago the USDA ripped up the concrete of one of its parking lots and planted a garden. But that is mostly a symbolic success and put just a couple of acres back into production. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t make a living on a parking-lot sized farm – even a northern Virginia/Washington, DC sized parking deck.
Separate data from the Census of Agriculture indicate that more than 520,000 acres of land were no longer considered as working farms during that same 2002 – 2007 period. Because rural landowners have much of their equity tied up in their land, they generally have to choose between selling their land for as much as possible, or holding on to the land for agricultural uses without the benefit of income from a farm sale.
The good news is that there is a third alternative available in addition to selling out or holding on with no financial reward. That alternative is the use of conservation easements.
A conservation easement is a voluntary perpetual agreement that helps landowners keep their working land in agricultural and forestal use by restricting non-agricultural uses such as mining and large-scale residential and commercial development. The landowner continues to own, live on and use the land. Land under easement may be sold or passed on to heirs but is bound by the easement restrictions. As an added bonus, there are generous state tax credits and federal tax deductions available for landowners who make these voluntary easement donations.
More than two years ago, I became involved in a project as VDACS Commissioner designed to increase the amount of working farm and forest land permanently protected from development. As an aside, there’s no better motivator than seeing your children’s enthusiasm for their 4-H and FFA projects to make you ask if you’re really doing enough to ensure that your farm will still be in production when they are ready to make career decisions. They may or may not choose farming as their life career, but I want it to be an option for them among others like rock star, astronaut, doctor or architect.
While recent data from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation indicates that 66 percent of the 75,025 acres that received land preservation tax credits in 2011 was in production agriculture or active forestry, I felt that additional work was needed. We pulled together a diverse group of agricultural and conservation representatives to work with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF), the largest conservation easement holder in Virginia.
Our goals were simple: to develop a conservation easement tailored to working farms and forests to increase the number of land owners who take advantage of conservation easements and the tax benefits that may result from an easement donation. As a result of this collaborative effort, VOF now offers a new working lands variant to their existing conservation easement. This new component provides a wider range of allowable uses without approval on a given farm, gives farmers more leeway in building new farm structures and still maintains its core function of keeping the farm free from development.
Considering whether a conservation easement is right for your family and your farm is a big decision. It is something my family and I are considering right now for our farm in Rockingham County. At the moment, we are still checking out the tax implications – i.e. the tax incentives – but I wouldn’t be surprised if we have put an easement on the farm by this time next year.
I do understand that a conservation easement is not always the best option for everyone, but regardless of how this decision plays out for my family, I feel strongly that the donation of a conservation easement warrants serious consideration by other working farm and forest landowners in Virginia. And if we can help farm owners make that decision, we are ready and eager to do so.
I strongly encourage Virginia farm owners interested in permanently protecting their land, while taking advantage of generous state and federal tax incentives, to contact our Office of Farmland Preservation (OFP). Readers in other states likely will find a similar office in their state department of agriculture. Our OFP director, Kevin Schmidt, is available to answer questions and to provide additional information on next steps. You may call him at 804.786.1346 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My ultimate goal as VDACS Commissioner is to provide a better understanding about conservation easements so that you and your family can make the best decision possible.
My personal goal as a dad is to make agriculture as appealing to my children as being the next Taylor Swift or Neil Armstrong. Hey, nobody ever said it was going to be easy.
Matthew J. Lohr is the commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.