A Farmer’s Guide to Working with Land Trusts

Holly Rippon-Butler
National Young Farmers Coalition

Accessing secure, viable and affordable farmland is one of the top challenges farmers face in starting a career in agriculture. Land is essential to a farm business. It provides the soil, water and open space you need. The location of the land determines the market opportunities, climate and social networks that you operate in. Beyond being a home for your business, your land is likely where you will make your home as well.

But how do you find a piece of property that fits your needs? And how will you afford it? These questions are on the mind of many beginning farmers. Thankfully, there are organizations around the country that can help you.

Land trusts have been protecting farmland from development for decades. A few visionary groups have also been working closely with farmers to protect farm viability, help farmers get on the land, and ensure that farmland stays in production. The National Young Farmers Coalition is excited to have released a new guide for farmers, designed to provide an introduction to land trusts and explain the process of partnering with a land trust to access affordable farmland.

What is a Land Trust?

Land trusts are non-profit organizations, often started by community members to protect a specific resource, such as farmland, from the threat of development. Land trusts range in size and capacity from all-volunteer, local groups to national organizations with offices in multiple states. Similarly, the emphasis of their work may vary. Some land trusts focus on protecting wildlife habitat and open space, while others direct their work solely to keeping farmland available. A number of land trusts do both.

Land trusts typically protect farmland by purchasing property outright or by holding a conservation easement on it. Conservation easements are binding agreements in which the owner of the land sells or donates a portion of their property rights, such as the right to develop the land, to the land trust, while retaining all other aspects of ownership, including the right to keep farming. For farmers, selling the development rights on a property can provide capital for improvements or help lower the purchase price of the land. The sale of development rights is just one of the ways a farmer can work with a land trust, however.

A Toolkit for Working with Land Trusts

There are many ways a land trust may allow you to gain access to farmland. Below are a few of the most common:

  1. Reducing the Cost of Ownership Through Easement Purchase: land trusts can purchase development rights on farmland at different points in the process of acquiring land. One way is for easements rights to be purchased prior to a young farmer buying the property, which helps reduce the purchase price and eliminate competition with developers. Another way occurs at the time of sale, which can provide money as a down payment. Finally, land trusts may purchase development rights after the farmer purchases the property, which provides cash that the farmer may invest back into their business or use to pay off debts. Some land trusts purchase land, protect it with a conservation easement, and resell it to a farmer after soliciting applications.
  2. Finding and Acquiring Land: land trusts can help a farmer find and acquire land by purchasing farmland and leasing it (either on a short- or long-term basis); linking new farmers with land owners wishing to sell; and providing purchase price advice. Some land trusts may be willing to help facilitate leasing agreements by vetting landlords and tenants, as well as making sure the lease agreement is favorable for both parties.
  3. General Assistance: land trust staff can in some cases act as a facilitator in farm transfer between generations or provide general guidance on the best farmland access strategy for your goals. Land trusts may also offer employment opportunities – either as a staff member or, in some cases, as a full-time farmer on a property they own; education workshops; and other forms of support for the local food economy.

It is important to keep in mind that land trusts typically cannot lend you money or answer technical production questions, and that their work will be governed by their mission as well as their staff capacity and experience. 

Working Farm Easements

Some land trusts are using innovative easements to further protect farmland by stipulating that it must be kept in agricultural use or sold to a working farmer. If the land is not sold to a qualified farmer, the land trust can step in and purchase the property at its agricultural value. These easements restrict more property rights, but provide greater initial compensation to landowners who sell the rights and help ensure that farmland remains accessible to farmers.

Where to Find a Land Trust

To find a land trust working in your area, we recommend checking out:

The American Farmland Trust Directory
The Land Trust Alliance Directory
Serve Your Country Food Map

Tips for Reaching Out to a Land Trust

It is important to make a great first impression and develop a lasting relationship with a land trust if you are planning on partnering with one to access land. Here is some advice on setting yourself apart:

  • Do your research – know a little about what the land trust can offer and where they focus their work.
  • Make contact – call or email a land trust staff member and introduce yourself. Tell the staff person what you are looking for, and find out if the land trust might be able to help you. Don’t be afraid to be gently persistent if you don’t hear back!
  • Be specific – vague requests for help or unclear goals make it less likely that the land trust staff member will be able to engage and help you.
  • Be convincing – similar to any job application, you want to draw the staff person in and give them a reason to be excited to work with you. Have a one-page letter prepared introducing yourself and make note of your previous experience or business plan to show that you have put thought into what you are looking for and how you plan to manage it.
  • Financial information – have an idea of what you can really afford if presented with an opportunity. This may include knowing your credit score, what you prequalify for, your costs of living, your debts, and your savings.
  • A lawyer – working with a lawyer through the process of partnering with a land trust is always a good idea, although it can get expensive. The most critical time to hire one is near the end of the process to help you understand and sign legal papers involved in closing the deal. The Conservation Law Foundation, Farm Commons, and Sustainable Economies Law Center are all good places to start for basic advice and may be able to suggest a lawyer who is familiar with agricultural issues in your area or willing to provide pro bono advice to a beginning farmer.

Check out the Guidebook!

For more information, including an overview of a typical transaction, a sample timeline and project budget, and an appendix of other resources, check out our report – available online for free or for purchase through NYFC’s online store. Feel free to send questions to me at holly@youngfarmers.org.