Finding ways to keep working farms working

Mickey and Bill Bullock run the only working farm on North Haven, an island off the coast of Maine. In the summer, descendents of the Cabots, Lowells, and Duponts, who have summered here since the 1870s, line up to buy fresh organic vegetables from the Bullocks farm stand; in winter, island children learn about farming in the 4-H club Mickey has organized or gather around the sheep and chickens Bill brings to the North Haven Community School.

The Bullocks are fortunate: The farm they're renting on North Haven is for sale. Between their farm stand, the wool that they spin from their own sheep, and Mickey's hand-knit sweater business, the couple figure they could handle a $100,000 mortgage on the 40-acre property.

The problem is, at a current average of $10,000 an acre, there's no way to make land in North Haven pay for itself, at least not by farming.

Urban green markets and community-supported agriculture programs, in which customers purchase a share in a market garden, have made the link between farms and the nonfarming community tangible to consumers across the United States.

In places like North Haven, though, where land is sold for its perceived value rather than for what it can grow, a farm may need direct monetary support from the community that enjoys its benefits to survive.

A farmer has to ask, "Can I afford - financially, emotionally - to invest without security?"

"It's a confidence thing," says Chuck Matthei, the founder of the Equity Trust, a Connecticut-based nonprofit organization that provides technical assistance and brokers loans for community development.

Mr. Matthei suggests that the community-trust model used in affordable housing is perfectly suited to securing a key community farm like the Bullocks'.

Nationally, community trusts, which evolved to give people with little equity access to home ownership, and conservation land trusts, historically made up of affluent, middle- and upper-middle-class members concerned with wildlife habitats and open space, are unlikely allies on farm issues. But as it becomes clear that secure access to farmland is crucial to keeping farms in business, these two forces are pulling together to come up with solutions. The key, it appears, is affordable land.

The community-trust model proposes tackling affordability by having the community purchase land and lease it to a farmer on a long-term basis, allowing him or her to own the improvements - just as homeowners in affordable-housing programs frequently own their homes, but not the land they're built on.

Meanwhile, purchase of development rights (PDR) programs approach the issue the other way around, trying to reduce the value of viable farms by negotiating conservation easements - legal contracts that remove the landowner's right to develop the land, usually in perpetuity - in exchange for cash. Fifteen states use public funds to conserve working farms, spending anywhere from an average of $325 per acre in Colorado to $3,417 an acre in Michigan to do so. PDR programs are designed to remove the incentive for taking land out of farming by making that land useless for development. In scenic locations with booming second-home markets and on the fringe of major cities, however, farms with their development rights removed make very attractive estates.

In 1995, Massachusetts took the logical next step to control the estate-value problem. While most agricultural PDR programs shy away from telling farmers what to do with their land, Massachusetts said that the intent of its easement was to maintain land in active agricultural use.

Mark Maslyn, deputy executive director of Natural Resources and Farmland Preservation at the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington, D.C., says he's skeptical of both "the community-trust ownership model and the Massachusetts easement. If the community owns the land, how many bosses do you have? If you don't own land, you're going to have trouble getting money from lenders," he says.

Jon Doggett, senior director of Natural Resources, echoes his concern. "Land is the only retirement a farmer has." If you don't allow a farmer to sell his farm for the highest and best use, what's he going to do? he says.

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