The demise of the small dairy farm coupled with second home development makes farmland increasingly unaffordable in Columbia County.
CLC’s Match Program is designed to increase the odds of long-term farm viability.
Hybrid ownership structures can be win/wins for farmers and land owners.
The 2018 NYS Working Farm Protection Act will help to create more permanent and affordable farmland.
TALKING WITH Marissa Codey of
the Columbia Land Conservancy
the clc timeline
Contributor: Susan Arterian Chang
Marissa Codey, a lover of nature since childhood, was drawn early on to a vocation as a conservationist. After serving as director of the Central Indiana Land Trust she joined the Columbia Land Conservancy in 2003 where she now directs the organization’s robust Agricultural Programs offerings. Marissa reports that she loves the land trust field because “it’s the most effective way to do conservation—thinking about human communities and natural habitats together.”
Columbia County is facing growing farmland access and affordability challenges. How is it changing the profile of the farming sector?
We have had the economics of the dairy crisis, combined with increasing land values because of the county’s second home ownership community. When a dairy farm is sold a vacant parcel is up for development, which means you often eventually end up with a lot of smaller parcels. It's fragmenting the habitat, and fragmenting the farmland. If you had a 100-acre farm, and you split it into five, 20-acre lots, and you put a house in the middle of each one, there's no going back from that.
Dairy farms typically need 200-500 acres. Vegetable operations need much less, 30 acres or so. So it's a very different type of use that’s happening on smaller parcels when they are sold for farmland, an influx of farmers coming into the community who are growing on a smaller scale and marketing through CSAs or to green markets down in the city.
How have CLC’s initiatives and its mission evolved in response to the farmland affordability crisis?
When I started in 2003 most of what we did was purchase land that we made available for public recreation, like hiking. We were also very actively engaged with donated conservation easement projects throughout the county. With these easements the landowner received a tax benefit in exchange for the donation. Beginning in 1999, CLC started to be involved with New York’s first purchases of development rights made possible under the state’s Farmland Protection Implementation Grant (FPIG) Program. For the first time we were able to protect a couple of different farmer-owned farms through a grant application. Under this program, the farmers were compensated in cash with the required match provided by the donation of a conservation easement on a single additional property. Previously, before the monetary grants became available through the Farmland Protection Program, we weren't doing a lot of easements on farmer-owned working farms because farmers typically didn't have sufficient income to take advantage of the tax deductions that went with the conveyance.
After 2008, in the aftermath of the mortgage crisis, the FPIG program went into hiatus for seven years. During the years it was suspended we began to partner with Scenic Hudson and did a number of farmland conservation easement projects with them under the Federal Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program, now the Agricultural Land Easement Program. That was the only viable grant source available at the time for farmland protection projects. Since the FPIG came back online in 2016 we've been doing a number of purchase of development rights projects through it. All together, since 2011, CLC has protected 35 farms many of which were in collaboration with Scenic Hudson including a few also with Equity Trust, using a combination of federal and state grants, sometimes with landowner donor components as well.
Can you explain the evolution of your Farmer Landowner Match program?
The Farmer Landowner Match program came out of a series of focus groups we conducted in 2007. Under the program we began to help farmers find land that they can lease, and help landowners find farmers to use their properties. As soon as we launched the program, we were getting lots and lots of calls from people wanting help and it has now essentially become a full-time job for somebody to manage. In 2018, CLC merged our farmland protection work with our farmland leasing and access work under a common umbrella named FARM Program (Farmland Access, Resources and Matching).
Can you explain the role the Farmer Landowner Match program now plays in furthering CLC’s farmland preservation mission?
The match program kick-started our now pretty robust program in looking at farmland affordability and farmland access issues. We took the approach that we didn't just want to be like a Craigslist helping farmers and landowners connect. We really wanted to play a role as intermediary in helping people establish relationships that were going to be solid, that were going to last. In that way, if we would be helping the land stay in active production under viable agricultural use, then we would by default be conserving the land, because it would be a lot less likely to be sold for other uses or for development if it was an active farm.
We would get to know the farmers, get to know the landowners, and help them think through their options— identifying people that would work for them, what did they really want by way of a farming arrangement? We offer a number of workshops on different topics related to that. We convene panel discussions with farmers and landowner, and have established a program where volunteer farmers meet with landowners to assess their land, and help them think about what uses might be feasible.
It certainly is a common occurrence to have new landowners who don’t really know anything about farming have visions of what they might want on their property. It's really helpful to have a resource, and a reality check, as not every property is going to be good for growing organic vegetables, for example.
So we are serving as a resource and facilitating conversations. We're not attorneys, we won't do legal review, but sometimes we'll either talk about arrangements with people, or read through their leases, and point out areas or topics that might be missing. So for example, have they thought about access? If a landowner has an arrangement with a farmer, how are they going to get into the property if it's not going right across their front lawn? Sights, smells, all those things that come along with farming that people who are new to it might not necessarily be thinking about.
And then for the farmers, we also try to remind them that it's different when you're renting land than when you own land. And that you shouldn't necessarily be expecting all the same kinds of freedoms. The most important thing that we stress is communicating, having that dialogue, working through a lease agreement before things are signed so that both parties understand what their expectations are, and what they're getting into. The landowner might be expecting a field of flowers in the first year, and the farmers are planning on doing cover crops for the first three years.
We started formally collaborating with Dutchess Land Conservancy in 2013 on the Match Program and we now have a formal relationship operating with them. In 2014 we also started working with the American Farmland Trust to help think through how a program like this might work regionally. They started the Hudson Valley Farmlink Network, of which we are one of the partners. More recently the Farmlink Network has been expanded throughout the state.
What is the role CLC plays in helping nonfarmer property owners who are not part of an investor group but would like to actively participate in the preservation of farm property by purchasing it and then making it accessible to farmers through some kind of partnerships arrangement?
There certainly are quite a few people interested in purchasing a farm property, who really want to be involved in a movement, in putting land to good use and making it available to a farmer to serve the local community. Ideally, the lease to the farmer covers some of the landowner’s expenses and their property taxes. We try to be a reality check that if your goal is to make a profit it’s probably not possible. Generally a farmer’s rental payments will be insufficient for a typical landowner to both cover expenses and make a profit.
There are all kinds of different permutations to it. Some landowners live on the property, some don't. People have different criteria for what they want the land to be used for. Hudson Valley is so diverse in the types of operations the choices are almost overwhelming. There's everything from people who want to support multiple-generational dairies, to those who only want to grow organic vegetables.
CLC is often in the middle; we don't take a stance on use. We see our role as understanding who is interested in what, and helping people find each other as opposed to excluding this use or that use. We have a pretty diverse mission, and diverse group of people who sign up who want help.
With the UN's latest reports on climate change, there is an increasing focus on agriculture’s negative impacts, and that means we need to start to raise awareness of “carbon farming”--how regenerative agricultural practices can actually be powerful tools to address climate change through soil enhancement and carbon sequestration. Is there a role the CLC can play in raising awareness of that?
We're in the process of going through our strategic planning for the next five years, and that's probably at the top of our list. One of the key points that we're thinking about is what is the appropriate role for us to play? And how does that interplay with the fact that we're in a rural community where many different types of farming practices are utilized by a wide diversity of operations including many multi-generation farms? It's a hard line to walk, and certainly there are opinions on all sides.
But if there's a role that we can play in helping a struggling dairy industry by offering resources to find financially beneficial and viable alternatives to current practices then I think that's certainly a direction that makes sense for us to head. But we're still in the beginning stages of figuring that out, as are many people and many groups. I think the science behind it is still being developed.
We've been talking for years about paying farmers for more than just their produce, but for their vital ecosystem services — protecting the water tables and the water supply, for enhancing the soil. Are you optimistic that will happen soon enough?
There’s definitely a lot of interest. But so far anyway, particularly when it comes to farming, I know that it's hard to quantify until there's a better understanding of how are you going to measure it. The other question is do you want to only benefit people who have converted their land to better agricultural practices? What about the people who have been doing practices like that all along? It doesn't seem very fair that they don't get a benefit from it. We are very involved in thinking through those issues.
One Columbia County farmer told us that as a vegetable farmer he's facing a lot more competition even as he struggles to make a living. What can be done to encourage farmers to enter less competitive, emerging, and potentially more regenerative agriculture sectors, like hemp or grain farming, or produce for currently underserved ethnic markets?
I think as a land trust we have to step back a little bit and think what is the appropriate role for us to play in this. We're not in the business of telling people how to farm, but we are in the business of facilitating. So if we knew a hemp farmer, for example, that was looking for land on which to grow hemp, we certainly could help point them in the direction of a land owner that would be amendable to that. It's more about partnerships, and understanding who has what to add to that puzzle to work effectively together.
What role do you see farmland investor groups playing in farmland conservation?
When you bring investors into the picture, there's got to be money in, but there also has to be a way to handle the money out. Somehow there has to be enough of a profit made for it to make sense for all of the players. I think one of the challenges of the farmland investor groups is that their rental rates are often a lot higher than what farmers are used to paying. Because the investor group has to cover its costs to buy land, earn enough revenue from leasing it to a farmer, and then under most scenarios make a profit from the eventual sale of the property based on the determined price the farmer pays for it— whether that be in 9 years, 12 years, 30 years, whatever it is.
So the investor group has costs that have to get covered and their investors have to get some kind of return. And the money that the farmers are making on the land isn't always enough to return that much of a profit to the investors. There are a lot of very smart, very well-intentioned people who have put their minds toward this, but they are still figuring it out.
Can the sale of easements take place on farms purchased by investor groups, enabling farmers to eventually purchase the land at affordable prices?
Yes if the investor group is able to take high-risk land off the market, lease it to the farmers, and we apply for state farmland protection funds. So you get more money into the deal, and then the investors in the land are able to sell it to the farmers at the protected lower price. So that makes sense. On the flip side, however, there are only so many grants awarded, and in this case they're getting awarded to the farmland investor groups, and not the working farmer landowners directly. But if they end up selling it to a farmer at an affordable agricultural price it's a pretty good outcome.
How does the 2018 NYS Working Farm Protection Act help make farmland even more affordable than it might be under the protection of a conventional conservation easement?
The 2018 Working Farm Protection Act passed by New York State, which was spearheaded by the National Young Farmers Coalition, confirmed that an affordability provision called “the preemptive purchase right” could be an eligible expense through the FPIG program. The Act allows the affordability provision to be included in the calculation of the dollar amount of the conservation easement awarded to a landowner who is willing to sell the easement with the stipulation that the land be sold in perpetuity at agricultural value to a qualified farmer. The ultimate goal is that farms protected under this provision will always be sold only to qualified farmers at affordable agricultural value. Conservation easements without the preemptive purchase right, by contrast, don’t control price or who can purchase the properties, they just control against subdivision and other uses and development activities that are incompatible with agricultural use.
In other states like Vermont and Massachusetts, affordability provisions in conservation easements have become quite standard. I think eventually New York might move in that direction. Right now, it's optional, so the landowner of the property that is awarded the dollars through the New York State Farmland Protection program can either choose to use the affordability provision, or choose not to use the provision, depending on what's going to work for their goals. I think that's the right place to be right now.
So now the affordability provision certainly is a tool that we're going to continue using. We feel quite strongly that if we're using public funding to protect farmland, and then it's being bought, but there's nothing that guarantees that it's going to be sold to a farmer, or at agricultural prices, then we've kind of only accomplished half of the goal. So I think farm affordability provisions are going to be pretty important as we look towards the future of farmland protection in New York.
From leasing to land ownership— what are the considerations for a farmer and how can CLC support a farmer along that journey?
It depends on the farmer’s point in their career. Renting generally seems to work okay in the very beginning when you're not ready to float up enough capital to make a real investment. If you just want to see if that's what you really want to do, renting is a really great way to go. Also apprenticeship programs, and then renting is a great way to get in the game and try it out.
At the point when farmers really want to make this be a long-term commitment, renting gets a lot harder, because they need to make capital investment, not just in improvements to the land, but to whatever infrastructure they might need. So whether it's a vegetable operation, if they need to put in a cold storage, to make capital expense on land that they don't own, that starts to become limiting.
And so at some point, seven years,10 years, there seems to be a moment when many farmers, not all, decide that it's time for them to try to buy their own farm, which makes a lot of sense. And so at that point, our goal as an organization, what we hope to do is figure out a way to use conservation tools, purchasing development rights with affordability provisions from the landowner, to help bring down the price of land for the farmer. So then when farmers are at that point, they can purchase a farm that's going to be affordable to them.
It's not a perfect system at the moment, because the farmer either has to be under contract with the property or own the property in order to apply for the grant in their name and the outcome of the award can be uncertain. So navigating that process is something that we've been looking at the last couple years pretty closely, and trying to come up with some solutions for a way to make it all work.
There are now some interesting new ways that farmers and landowners are partnering beyond simple lease arrangements—where for example, the farmer may invest in infrastructures, housing, or agricultural assets like trees that they own themselves apart from land ownership—this is relatively virgin territory without people having much experience or history with it.
I think we are in the very beginning stages of how it's all going to play out. Certainly land prices are not going to go down. And so taking that price of the land itself out of the equation for the farmers is going to be beneficial. I think some of these models are really interesting, and we're looking to learn more.
There is a role that CLC can play quite easily in bringing together the people that we know who are interested in looking at alternative models of ownership. For example, our conservation easements for the last three or four years have a provision that allows for separation of land from structures subject to long-term ground lease. An example is the Thompson Finch Farm in Ancram, where CLC purchased farmland and awarded the existing farmer a long-term ground lease. Under the terms of that agreement, the farmer retains ownership of farm buildings, will make improvements in infrastructure like fencing and irrigation, and has the right to recoup those investments when the lease is transferred. That is not a common practice in easements; typically conservation easements, even those with the farmland affordability provisions, marry the infrastructure to the land.
We are also looking for ways to apply what we have put in place in the ground-lease structure for the Thompson Finch property to privately owned land. If a land owner wanted to offer a long-term ground lease to a farmer, and give the farmer the opportunity to own their house and build equity in an affordable farm house, what kinds of provisions might we put in a private deal like that so the farmers have the security? So kind of a hybrid ownership model. The farmers have the security that they need to invest in their homes and other farm-related infrastructure, but the landowners aren't put in a position that's not going to feel comfortable to them. We’re playing around with ideas like that, in close collaboration with partners like Equity Trust.
The CLC’s approach to preservation and affordability of farmland is unusually deep and broad.
I think we are somewhat unusual for a land trust in the amount of staff time and resources that we have chosen to invest in not just farmland protection, but farmland access and farmland affordability. I think in our community at this point in time, it's a need that's so critical and there is no single right way to do it given the dynamics, and the transition of farmland happening here. For any land trust it's just really important to understand your community, and be flexible to adapt in fitting its needs. If you want to protect farmland, it's certainly not a stretch to figure out that you need to make it be economically viable for the farmers to stick around.