University of California researchers find that farmland owners are usually motivated by cash and a personal desire to keep their family farms in agricultural production when they agree to sell conservation easements on their properties that prevent the land from ever being developed into homes or businesses.

These findings are in a 57-page publication from the UC Agricultural Issues Center titled California Farmers and Conservation Easements: Motivations, Experiences and Perceptions in Three Counties, by Ellen Rilla, director of Marin County UC Cooperative Extension, and Al Sokolow, UCCE public policy specialist and associate director of the Ag Issues Center.

Rilla and researchers Robin Kozloff and Cathy Lemp conducted interviews with 46 landowners in Marin, Sonoma and Yolo counties who either sold conservation easements on their farm property or purchased farmland restricted by a conservation easement.

The purchase of the easements is funded in Sonoma County with a quarter-cent sales tax approved by county residents in 1990. Since the early 1980s the Marin Agricultural Land Trust has funded easements with state government and foundation grants. Voters there rejected sales tax measures for funding easements in 1992 and 1996. Yolo County easements are paid in large part by development mitigation requirements approved by the city of Davis in 1995 and by state grants.

Motivational factors The authors found that landowners were motivated to sell easements on their property by three primary factors: land preservation, family and cash. Preservation, for either continued farming or open space, ranked at the top.

"The ranch was something that I had put together over the years," said one Sonoma County landowner who was quoted in the publication. "I wanted it to remain in productive agriculture, not houses."

Only five of the farmers said preservation made no difference to them. "After I go, I don't care that much what happens to the property," one said.

Economics was another factor that played a role in many of the farmers' decisions to sell the conservation easements. Easements were valued from $1,300 to several thousand dollars per acre, generally the difference between urban development and agricultural values. For giving up their development rights, landowners in the three counties typically received at least several hundred thousand dollars apiece and more than $1 million in a few cases, depending on parcel size.

"We took the money for several reasons," a Marin landowner said. "Certainly one was economic because we had a big mortgage that we wanted to reduce. We also wanted to diversify and improve our operations, make improvements in the dairy and build a processing plant."

The cash payment was connected to conservation and family matters in the responses of some landowners. The money allowed some farmers to settle family estates, payoff debts and fund their retirements without requiring the outright sale of the land.

"A big problem we face is inheritance tax," said a Marin County landowner. "The land has escalated in value way beyond what we're able to pay. I'm 60 years old and in a position to be both inheriting it and passing it on. I would have to sell the farm and that's the last thing I want to do."