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The National Assessment of Agricultural Easement Programs

Project Period:

2002-07-01 - ongoing

Principal Investigator:

Anita Zurbrugg, AFT; Alvin D. Sokolow UC, Agricultural Issue Center, Davis, CA

As a joint effort of American Farmland Trust and the Agricultural Issues Center of The University of California, Davis this project examines the record of agricultural easement programs throughout the nation, intending to draw out conclusive lessons about how program methods and strategies generate more or less effective accomplishments. An underlying objective is to produce useful information for program managers; federal, state, and local government officials who manage easement funds; agricultural and conservation groups; and other audiences.

Among advocates of farmland protection efforts, agricultural easements are now regarded as the most promising tool for dealing with urban conversion trends. Largely because of their nonregulatory and landowner compensation features, easements just in the past quarter of a century have become a widely popular technique for the express purpose of protecting farmland. Since that time, according to AFT estimates, about 1,100,000 farmland acres nationwide have been put under easements at an approximate cost of $2.3 billion. We know a great deal about the strategies and practices of organizing, funding, and acquiring easements–the “front end” of the agricultural easement story. What is less certain, however, is the effectiveness of the technique in reversing or minimizing the farmland conversion trend in the United States–the “back end” of the process. Considering that additional billions of federal, state, local and private sector dollars soon will be added to what has already have been spent, how do we evaluate the public benefits of this large investment?

Several measures of effectiveness guide the research:
1. The impacts of easement patterns on the rate and direction of farmland conversion.
2. Impacts on local and regional land use patterns, especially the direction and character (density, rural residences, etc.) of urban development.
3. Impacts on local land markets, especially farmland prices and sales volume.
4. Impacts on agricultural land uses and local agricultural economies.
5. Program management–monitoring and landowner compliance.
Impacts are examined in the context of each program’s objectives and acquisition strategies and in relation to local government planning and land use policies and practices.

The Research
We examine the performance and impacts to date of approximately 46 agricultural easement programs (see list below) in 15 states -- a majority of the leading programs in the nation in acres and individual farms covered by easements. Most are operated by county or other local governments but the list also includes (1) four statewide programs (Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Vermont), concentrating on impacts in particular localities, and (2) nonprofit land trusts in a few states. This research produced detailed profiles for each program and a comparative analysis of program performance and impacts.

Findings from The National Assessment of Agricultural Easement Programs are issued as a series of online reports 1) Profiles and Maps; 2) How Programs Select Farmland to Fund; 3) Easements and Local Planning; and 4) Measuring Success in Protecting Farmland with Easements (forthcoming November 2006).

Project Links
A National View of Agricultural Easement Programs: Profiles and Maps - Report 1
A National View of Agricultural Easement Programs: How Programs Select Farmland to Fund - Report 2
A National View of Agricultural Easement Programs: Easements and Local Planning - Report 3
A National View of Agriculture Easement Programs: Measuring Success in Protecting Farmland - Report 4

American Farmland Trust