Land Trusts and Their Farms

Land Trusts and Their Farms

We read the article “Land Trusts and CSAs – Better Together” in the March 2009 MOF&G and believe there are other views of this that need to be discussed. Unfortunately, there always seem to be unintended negative consequences to acts of good intentions.

It is important to understand that the whole issue of land trusts and their impact on local farms is complex. There are many conservation groups that are preserving land and encouraging the land owners to cooperate with existing local farmers or wildlife groups. We think that land conservation is a good thing. We, ourselves, farm about 4 1/2 acres of land that we don’t own that is in conservation at the corner of Routes 125 and 136. The discussion that follows is about what happens when boards of directors who are in control of conserved land decide to use the power of their position to start commercial farms using tenant farmers on trust land to penalize and compete with local, small, family owned farms.

Land trusts, foundations, and nonprofits have competitive advantages that small family owned farms do not. They are exempt from income, property, and excise taxes that small family owned farms have to pay. They can apply for grants and do tax deductible fundraising that small family farms cannot. They have “name loyalty” that small family farms cannot compete with. These farms are presented as more socially responsible than small family owned farms. More than one person has told us that chose not belong to our CSA farm because the local land trust farm “does good work” that we don’t. Remember, small family owned farms operate sustainably and preserve open space while paying property taxes that support their town, all with no help from tax deductible donations or foundation grants.

We believe that land trust farms are unfair to their tenant farmers. As we built our family farm, we borrowed from our equity on the property to fund one thing or another. We have purchased equipment and we replaced the barn after it burned down. Ralph had surgery and we had to pay medical bills. We borrowed equity to help our kids with college.

We are aware of no instance where the foundation or land trust makes payments into a fund for the farmer’s retirement in lieu of equity appreciation. We have seen farmers asked to leave the land trust property and lose the business they’ve built. We know of none where the lease allows for the farmer to live on the property when they retire, or to borrow against the value of the property if family needs arise.

The single most often expressed reason why the land trust farms are necessary is the argument that land is too expensive for anyone to afford. This argument ignores all the family owned farms like ours that have developed over the last several decades. We, for example, worked off the farm for more than 15 years to buy the land and build the infrastructure that allow us to farm.

To us, sustainability is about more than preserving open spaces, organic, renewable energy, or even good agricultural practices. It’s about building a family owned business. This thing that we are all trying to do is “sustainable” only if it can weather a tragedy and come out on the other side able to recover and rebuild. Assuming that we’ve been lucky enough to have made a living farming, what will we have to sustain us when we are too old to farm? Maine needs to evaluate the land trust – CSA connection from a broader perspective for the sake of both family farms and the land trust tenant farmers.  This should not be just a marketing tool for already extremely powerful and wealthy non-profits to raise money at the farmers expense.

For us, family owned farming is a socially responsible and truly sustainable business.  Please support your local family owned farm.