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The United States loses more than a million acres of farmland each year to development, with losses in every state. The supply of American-grown fruits and vegetables are especially susceptible; 91 percent of America’s fruits, nuts, and berries are grown near urban areas, as are 78 percent of vegetables and melons.
States have reacted to this loss of arable land by creating a variety of laws and programs designed to encourage the preservation of traditional agricultural lands, such as farms and ranches. For example, Connecticut has preserved at least 283 farms totaling more than 37,262 acres at a cost of about $130 million since the program began in 1979. The following information represents a selection of legislation and statutes that address state government support of efforts to encourage the preservation of agricultural lands by governments, nonprofits, private landowners and other groups.
2012 Election Update
The 2012 elections saw voters in two states approve bond measures to support farmland preservation, with Rhode Island approving $20 million in bonds, including $4.5 million to provide funds for the purchase of agricultural development rights to active farms in the state. Maine’s voters passed a $5 million bond, including funds to preserve working farmland.
The information provided within this document was accumulated with the assistance of the American Farmland Trust’s Farmland Information Center.
Conservation Easements and Land Trusts
Conservation easements are lands that have been set aside by landowners, nonprofit organizations or other entities. Agricultural conservation easements are protected from future development for a pre-determined amount of time and must remain preserved as working ranches or farms. The state or a private entity pays for the development rights to the land, giving the farmer or rancher a stream of income while preserving open space and the rural character of the area. Rather than prohibit all use or development, agricultural conservation easements prevent the use and development of land for nonagricultural purposes. States also provide support to public and private land trusts that sometimes administer conservation easements and other farmland preservation strategies.
States may offer financial assistance to new or existing farmers to encourage continuation of agricultural production and increase the economic viability of farming. Financial assistance to farmers may take the form of grants or loans issued by state governments. Such assistance is designed to support and generate independent farming activities.
States may pass “Right to Farm” laws to preserve farming activities that may be threatened by urban development activities and related legal claims. Right-to-farm laws are passed to protect farmers and agricultural businesses from nuisance claims that may be raised by local residents, businesses, or developers. The laws are designed to ensure normal farming activities may continue without fear of liability. Generally, these laws are designed to protect farming activities that were in place prior to other types of development.
State Acquisition of Private Land
States may choose to take an active role in preserving farmland by acquiring land by purchase, donation or other means. The state may then sell or lease the land to private farmers for agricultural purposes, thus ensuring that farmland remains available for agricultural use, rather than sold and converted to other types of development.
Tax credits are a popular means of supporting the preservation of farmland for agricultural uses. Fifteen states allow private or corporate landowners to donate land for conservation purposes to public or private entities in exchange for a tax credit. Of those fifteen states, California, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Virginia specifically identify agricultural lands for conservation.
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Farm Viability Programs
Some states have created programs intended to ensure the next generation of farmers have the skills and land necessary to be economically competitive. The majority of farmers in the United States are between the ages of 45-64, with the over 65 cohort growing at the fastest rate. Land costs and competition from developers often make it difficult for new or existing farmers to purchase or expand their operations. Missouri and Virginia are among the states that help prospective farmers’ access available land.
Agricultural Planning and Zoning
Just as zoning regulations can create difficulties for farming and ranching operations, they can also create certainty and clarity for agricultural production. Many states request or require counties and other local entities to create plans that incorporate and protect important farmland. They also may determine what, if any, level of development is allowable and compatible with agricultural operations. Frequently, counties create boards or committees to inventory local farmland and designate protected zones.