For Susan Koehler, farmland preservation manager for the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust, permanent protection of the land means more than preserving the region’s wild places. “Fruit and vegetable production is a part of our heritage, and it will be a big part of sustaining our quality of life moving forward,” she says. Through the Farmland Access Fund, Susan is helping existing and aspiring landowners reduce costs and keep land in farming forever.
What’s it like to be a farmer in Northwest Arkansas right now?
On the one hand, small-scale farming is increasing in popularity. Farmers markets are booming, and demand for locally grown fruits and vegetables from restaurants and other wholesale sources is outpacing supply. More people, especially post-COVID, are realizing they can work from anywhere, and are choosing the high quality-of-life and outdoor lifestyle we can offer here.
At the same time, the overall number of farms and acres in farming here has decreased for at least the past decade, so the supply of land suitable to farming is shrinking.
How are you working to reverse this loss of farmland?
Helping farmers succeed is a big part of what we do at the Land Trust, from those in the beginning stages of their operations through lease-to-own programs, to making land, equipment and support connections through our free website NWA FarmLink. But we also need to help more experienced farmers who are looking to access land or expand their operations to meet this growing demand.
This is where the Farmland Access Fund comes in. Through a voluntary conservation easement process, the Land Trust can help reduce the cost of the land and ensure that the farm is protected for future generations.
What is an easement?
A conservation easement is a legal agreement between the landowner and the Land Trust that protects the land from future development, and it can also qualify as a pretty significant tax-deductible charitable donation. The landowner continues to own and farm their land, and when they are ready, can sell it or pass it on to their heirs, so long as it is kept in farming. The terms of the conservation easement stay with the deed forever. Easements can be purchased, but they are usually donated.
The Land Trust is also a partner to federal USDA programs that offer to compensate farmers for easements that keep land in farming. Even though this federal program presents an incredible opportunity for farmers, it has never been used for farmland in Arkansas before. By guiding more farmers through the federal process, we can combine these federal funds with local dollars to help more farm seekers and farmland owners. These agricultural conservation easement programs will pay a farmer up to 50% of the easement value. This can be a significant amount of money saved, and can be put back into operating costs.
How would a farmer get involved?
One of two things can happen. Ideally, the Land Trust would receive farmland as a donation from a landowner looking for a tax deduction and who wants to keep that land in farming. After the land transfer is complete, the trust announces the availability of the farm and matches it with qualified farmer applicants, selling the land to the farmer at an affordable price, with a conservation easement on the land paid in part by the Farmland Access Fund.
We also work with farmers seeking land to grow more fruits and vegetables. We assist them in selecting the best land for their growing needs and work to educate the seller on the tax benefits of conservation easements, which also lowers the cost for buyers. If the seller is not interested in this option, we help the farmer buy the land at fair market value, connecting them with tax professionals and local farm-focused banking partners. Then, the Land Trust buys the easement from the new landowner, which puts 30-50% of the purchase price back in their pocket.
How are farmers responding to the program?
Farmers are excited, and we have a strong pipeline of interest from both seekers and landowners. This is such a great opportunity for the region, both for people who are already farming and those who see a future here.
I’m optimistic programs like these, that really take a whole food system approach, will put more land within reach for the people who get up every day and get their hands dirty for us.