As the American population continues to grow, farmland is being engulfed and developed. However, agricultural easement programs are slowing the rate of farmland conversion.

A national study has found these land conservation tools are mostly used in suburban and semi-rural parts of major metropolitan areas — counties with populations greater than 100,000 that have been experiencing rapid population growth for years. Six California programs are included in the study.

A National View of Agricultural Easement Programs is the most in-depth and comprehensive analysis of agricultural easement programs undertaken in the United States. This report profiles 46 agricultural easement programs in 15 states — nearly half of all publicly funded farmland protection programs in the nation.

$1.8 billion guards 887,000 acres

The 46 programs studied have spent a total of $1.8 billion to protect 887,000 acres on 5,800 farms. The study was conducted by American Farmland Trust and the University of California's Agricultural Issues Center, in collaboration with Farm Foundation.

Since 1983, the six California programs included in the study have put easements on 84,700 agricultural acres representing 170 farms and ranches, thus removing this land from development potential. The six programs are the most active of about a dozen local agricultural easement programs in California, according to project director Alvin D. Sokolow, University of California Cooperative Extension public policy specialist. Including the work of national and regional conservation organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, programs in California have accumulated a total of about 200,000 agricultural easement acres, he said.

Program diversity

“This study reveals a diversity of ways that farm conservation easement programs are conceived, managed and funded,” says Sokolow of UC Agricultural Issues Center. “What all of the programs have in common, however, is that they were launched by a show of strong public support for farmland protection. This common conviction supported the bond issues, revenue measures and public deliberations needed to establish and maintain the programs.”

Agricultural easements allow landowners to sell the development rights on their farms to government or nonprofit organizations in exchange for agreeing to keep the land permanently available for agriculture. The use of farm easements has grown exponentially since the 1970s; today 26 states have at least one publicly funded easement program at the state or local level.

The six California programs included in the national research sample are Marin Agricultural Land Trust, Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, Monterey County Historical and Agricultural Land Conservancy, Tri-Valley Conservancy (Alameda County), Napa Land Trust and Yolo Land Trust.

Marin Agricultural Land Trust and the Sonoma Open Space district were among the top 10 programs in the nation for the number of farm acres put under easement. Each has acquired more than 30,000 easement acres.

One interesting study finding was that the cost of agricultural easements — generally the difference between the market and agricultural values of the land — varies tremendously.

“The per acre cost of individual easement transactions ranges from a few hundred dollars in rural areas, to close to $100,000 in a few metropolitan locations on the East Coast that are under intense development pressure,” Sokolow explains.

Average price

Although the average price of easements for all 46 programs studied nationwide was approximately $2,000 per acre, the report explains that easements are often worth far more than their price tags.

The six California programs spent $103 million in cash, mostly in public funds, for purchasing their easements as of 2002. “These funds do not cover the full cost of acquiring the development rights from the landowners,” Sokolow explains, “since some of the value is also contributed by landowners as charitable donations, which earn them tax benefits.” Also some easements are acquired through mitigation for the conversion of farmland to urban uses, in which the costs are paid by residential development.

“Taken together, landowner donations and mitigations were worth an estimated $60 million in easement value, which brings the total value to about $163 million,” Sokolow says. “This translates into an average value — purchase prices in most cases — of about $1,940 per easement acre acquired.”

The Napa Land Trust acquires its easements exclusively through donations. The other five California programs included in the study have some donations but mostly pay cash.

The Sonoma district is the only public entity (local government) among the six California programs; all the others are nongovernmental, nonprofit land trusts. By comparison, virtually all agricultural easement programs in other states leading in the use of the technique (New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Vermont, Delaware and Washington) are operated by state and local governments.

Helped cut conversion

Farms and ranches put under easement represent only a small fraction of the total 27 million acres of agricultural land in California and the almost 500,000 acres that were converted to urban uses in the past decade, Sokolow notes. “But in certain locations where active programs operate, such as Marin County and the South Livermore Valley in Alameda County, easements have helped to reduce conversion rates and direct urban growth away from good agricultural land.”

The report, A National View of Agricultural Easement Programs, along with maps of land protected through most of the 46 programs studied, is available online at www.farmland.org and www.farmfoundation.org.