In the last of our series diving into our top 2023 Farm Bill priorities, we…
Newer Strategies to Keep Farmland Affordable and Accessible to Farmers
Like any farm family, the Wormells have seen their share of hardship over the more than 100 years they’ve operated Wormell Farms, including the devastating loss of their contract with Horizon Organic in 2021 that shuttered their dairy business. As fifth-generation farmers Brendon and Brianna Wormell sought to purchase the farm from their grandparents Lee and Carole Wormell and re-establish the farm by raising beef cattle, they encountered another barrier: the cost of the farmland. The price of the 78 acre farm just 20 minutes from Portland was out of reach, and if the farm were to hit the open market in a hot real estate market like Cumberland, it would be likely to attract competition from non-farmers who might view the farm as a desirable estate property. By working together with Maine Farmland Trust (MFT) to add an “Option to Purchase at Agricultural Value” (an “OPAV”) to the already-existing conservation easement on the farm in March, Brendon and Brianna were able to afford the purchase, while establishing new legal means to ensure any future sale outside the family will be to another active farmer.
“We could not have purchased the farm without Maine Farmland Trust’s involvement. We are the fifth generation to own and operate a working farm, and we hope to eventually make our two young children the sixth. It is incredibly meaningful to us to keep this farm in our family, and have the chance to watch our children grow up on the same active farm where Brendon spent large portions of his childhood.” – Brianna and Brendon Wormell
Wormell Farms is among a network of farm properties in Cumberland that have been protected in recent years. Maine Farmland Trust has partnered with the Chebeague & Cumberland Land Trust (CCLT) to protect the farm fields and landscapes at Spring Brook Farm and LongWoods Preserve, and CCLT has additionally protected Meetinghouse Farm and the Read Family Farm. Approximately seven farms in Cumberland remain, with several less than 15 minutes from Portland. As any farmer will tell you, having a broader agricultural community to lean on for support is invaluable, and by protecting multiple farms in Cumberland, MFT and its partners are also helping to keep that network of farmers active and thriving.
Maine Farmland Trust originally protected the farmland at Wormell Farms with an agricultural conservation easement in 2016, which prevents the land from being subdivided or transformed into commercial or residential development, and caps its value as an indivisible parcel. Without an easement in place, the estimated open market price tag for the Wormell Farms property would be over $1 million – a purchase price nearly impossible for the average farmer to afford (according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, the average net income for Maine farmers was $16,958). While the existing easement on the Wormell Farms property meant that the value of the protected farmland was lower than it would have been as subdividable land, the value was still high enough to be financially out of reach for Brendon and Brianna Wormell. The easement-protected property still held value to potential non-farmer buyers who might look to build an estate type home on a large lot in a desirable area of Southern Maine, and if the property were to go on the market, a non-farmer buyer could likely outcompete potential farmer buyers.
It became clear that more had to be done to keep the Wormells’ farmland affordable and accessible to working farmers like the younger Wormells – and that Maine Farmland Trust could build on the existing easement with newer farmland protection tools to make that possible. With the purchase of the OPAV, Maine Farmland Trust will now have the legal means to ensure any future resale of the property outside of the family will be to an active farmer, while unlocking additional equity as the younger generation Wormells closed on the sale, helping them to finance their purchase.
“MFT’s protection of the Wormells’ farmland from nonagricultural development was critically important, but in a community like Cumberland, that’s not always enough to keep a farm in active agriculture. Through the Option to Purchase at Agricultural Value, MFT will be able to ensure that all future owners of the property are committed to actively farming the land. Not only did MFT’s purchase of the OPAV make the farmland affordable for Brendon and Brianna, but it also ensures that all future transfers of the property will happen at farmland values. MFT is pleased that now, in addition to remaining undeveloped, the property will also stay an active farm, affordable for future farmers, and continue to feed the community.” – Adam Bishop, Director of Farmland Protection & Farmland Access at Maine Farmland Trust
As the pressure of Maine’s real estate market continues to build, traditional agricultural easements may no longer be enough to keep protected farmland accessible to farmers in higher pressure areas like Cumberland, where farmers may be more likely to be outbid by non-farmer competition. Through the OPAV, Maine Farmland Trust can keep desirable farmland affordable and in the hands of active farmers. The OPAV requires landowners to notify MFT of any future sales, and if a farm goes under contract to a buyer who is not a commercial farmer or a family member, MFT can exercise its option to purchase the conserved property at agricultural value and then resell it to another farmer who will keep it in active production.
While Maine Farmland Trust has included OPAVs in several of its more recent agricultural easements, Wormell Farms represents the first time Maine Farmland Trust has purchased an OPAV on a property that had already been protected with a more traditional easement. As MFT continues to evolve its work in the face of rising real estate values and development pressures, it will continue to incorporate newer strategies like these OPAV additions, and advocate for systemic solutions to help more Maine farmers access the land they need to establish and grow thriving farm businesses across the state.