Coming up our mountainside driveway with a handful of mail the other day, I happened to notice on top of a stack of gardening catalogs a newsletter from the Maine Farmland Trust. An article caught my interest and I suddenly found myself coming up short at the steps to the front door. There’s nothing like an interesting read to keep you from knowing where you are. I was astounded by a new program they have started.
Maybe you are not familiar with the Maine Farmland Trust. They are a nonprofit organization that creates easements on land used for farming in Maine. An easement is a legal means of keeping tracts of land undeveloped while designating specific uses, in this case, farming.
Faster than a trust can write up the documentation to protect land, it seems that acreage is taken over for development, becoming houses, businesses, and even communities almost overnight. And, this is happening not just in Maine, but almost everywhere. It might be a good idea for all of us to wake up and take notice. As families continue to expand, more people need housing. Before you think that new homes might be a good use for repurposed farmland, consider that as population grows, greater and greater amounts of food are needed. Add to this climate change which threatens to drown some areas and turn others into desert, while causing unpredictable storms that have already destroyed crops. It seems that we have a compelling need to keep as much land as possible in food production.
Because land trusts typically operate on a limited budget, it is standard practice for a willing land owner to donate the easement, often paying for the needed surveying and legal work. For a trust to secure easements by waiting for them to be donated had one thing going against it. There are many land owners who simply cannot afford to fund the expenses of an easement. They may be tempted to sell land to a developer as a way of raising cash even if they truly wish to protect the property from development.
What I got excited about in the Farmland Trust's newsletter is their new program for procuring easements. They are now taking on easements funded by the trust’s own fundraising efforts. By raising the needed amounts, they buy an easement, paying the owner a certain price per acre. The price is a set amount, less than market value, but still an adequate amount to attract easements. This is already a known method of doing easements, but few land trusts may be able to attract the needed funding.
Through this program, according to the newsletter, three farms have been granted easements, three more are in the works, and nineteen await consideration. Farm owners who love their lands and believe in the value of farming now have a lasting option to subdivision. Farmland is precious, and once divided for development is gone forever. It will be a relief to owners that their precious lands can continue to produce food. It is good, too for those of us who appreciate local agriculture and want it to continue. For a long, long, time. -jmm