By Melissae Fellet
Part 2 (see part 1)
Ned Conwell and his former business partner moved to old cattle ranch in Pescadero about seven years ago.
“It had basically fallen into a state of disrepair,” Conwell says. “It was pretty derelict. Some of the outbuildings, a barn, are still falling over. But there was a house and fields and a creek.”
Now he lives there with his wife. The couple leases the land from the Peninsula Open Space Trust, a Palo Alto-based nonprofit organization that protects land from being developed. Besides leasing land directly to their partners, the land trust also holds conservation rights on other properties to prevent people from building on that land.
While conserving land for agriculture is important, Conwell says, it’s more important to ensure farming continues on these lands through lease agreements that are favorable to the farmer for the long term.
Land trusts conserve land in the public’s interest, so some groups refer to it as public land even though some of that land is not publically accessible like a state park.
“Public lands can be a really good option for farmers,” says Reggie Knox, executive director for California FarmLink, a Santa Cruz-based nonprofit that helps beginning farmers statewide find land and develop business plans. “Where land values are really high, like in California and coastal California in particular, it may be really more strategically wise for the business to lease than to own.”
Farmers often have other expenses to consider when leasing too. Conwell says that his barn is falling over and probably needs to be rebuilt.
“It’s central to our packing and our washing and our cooling and where we house equipment,” he says. “There’s really no incentive for us to fix it up if we don’t have some way to actually build equity in these investments.”
Land trusts are starting to address the issue.
“We have had a shift recently in our thinking about what it means to protect agriculture and what is necessary to protect agriculture,” says Paul Ringgold, vice president for Stewardship at POST.
The land trust has always worked to protect agricultural land from development, but not worked to ensure that farming continues on protected lands, he adds. Now that’s becoming more of a concern. More people are able to purchase conserved land, though they may not have the intention to farm it, Ringgold says.
“We would like to address that and somehow increase the level of protection so that we can be assured that productive row crop farmland remains in farming and available to farmers for use,” he says.
The land trust is looking at two ways to do that. They could continue to own the land and write long-term leases to farmers. These new leases would separate the value of the land from the value of the improvements to the land.
When farmers lease land, it’s hard for them to build equity when they build a fence, water system or repair a barn. This new way to write a lease transfers the value of these improvements to the farmer while assuring that the land remains protected from development.
The land trust could also add additional restrictions to the land requiring it to be used for agriculture. Some of these ideas have been tested in Massachusetts, Vermont, and New York. And, farmer Ned Conwell says: “There’s good work now starting to happen in California. We’re starting to see open space trust organizations and other entities that own this land really looking at new models to allow for long term security, affordability, and agricultural land staying in farming in perpetuity.”
And using these new models, Conwell hopes leasing conserved land will be sustainable for the next generation of family farmers and beyond. “So that when we leave this earth, so that our family or whoever the next generation is takes over, they have access to a farm, they can afford it and the community knows that this farm will continue to produce food for the population,” he says.