May 5, 2014
Land conservation can be a tricky business, and farmland protection follows suit. If each farm is unique, then you can imagine each conservation easement must also be unique, suited to the specific needs of the land and farmer. Protecting farmland requires an exceptional level of flexibility in easements and the long term stewarding relationships they create. Nina and Reeve, MFT Lands and Legal staff respectively, presented together last weekend at the Maine Land Trust Conservation Conference about building flexibility into working easements.
Conservation easements are legal documents attached to a property’s deed that limit the uses of designated lands. Working easements specific to agriculture allow more flexibility in land use, which requires different kinds of legal language. Reeve reminded us not to get fixated on easement clauses because it should not be so complicated that no one understands it. The purpose of an easement is to protect the conservation values of land. Therefore, when MFT writes an agricultural easement with a landowner, we are always asking, how does this preserve the ability of a farmer to farm?
The workshop was well attended. Land trust staff, woodlot managers, appraisers, attorneys, fundraisers, real estate agents, overflowed the arranged seats and sat on the desks or stood in the doorway. Some attendees were well versed in farmland protection, and others were working on their first farmland protection project. The conversation was a true back-and-forth, and the audience put forth a steady stream of questions that tackled some of the big issues: how do you accommodate both wildlife conservation and working land viability? should we favor ground-nesting birds or the farmer who needs to cut hay? how much flexibility is too much? These are tough questions, but a crucial dialogue to have if we want to ensure that we have viable, vital farms that produce food for our communities in the future.
Yes, farmland protection is a complex and sometimes intimidating process. Farms are unique and ever-changing and, and agricultural easements need to reflect those qualities. The process takes time, investment, and commitment and are thrilled to see so many peers picking up the shovel and initiating farm protection projects across the state. It is critical to our future. We must protect farmland for the future of Maine farming.