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To protect and conserve

The Land Trust for Tennessee offers an option for concerned property owners
By Glen Liford, photos by Glen Liford and Allison Parker 11/15/2018

 

Marianne Blackwell worked with The Land Trust for Tennessee to ensure that her family property will be available for farming even after it is transferred to a new generation of owners.
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When Marianne Blackwell resigned a high-pressure job in the healthcare industry and returned to her family’s Century Farm in Eagleville in 2005, she knew she was carrying on a family tradition that dated back as many as six generations. The family’s original 1,000 acres were acquired through a Revolutionary War land grant that drew her ancestors from North Carolina to the rolling hills of what would become Middle Tennessee.

The land called to her just as it had her forefathers.

She returned to the 232 acres of prime farmland where Marianne and her parents, customers of Rutherford Farmers Cooperative, had a Hereford cow-calf operation. Both of her parents are now deceased and she has no direct heirs. But it was important to her to preserve the nature of the farm for future generations.

“I want to leave things at least as good or better as I found them,” she says. “I wanted to do my part to protect [the farm] even after I’m gone.”

To do this, she worked with the Land Trust for Tennessee (LTTN) to develop a conservation easement that would ensure the farm would not be subdivided, developed, or used for purposes other than farming.

“I’m not against progress, but we’re losing important land to development,” she says. “Tennessee landscapes are gorgeous, and I wanted to do my part to preserve it.”

The LTTN is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit land conservation organization dedicated to protecting important land across Tennessee. Since its establishment nearly 20 years ago, LTTN has been working to preserve the unique characteristics of the state by protecting and conserving the different types of land that are important to Tennesseans. The organization protects forestland, open spaces in urban and suburban areas, historic landscapes, public parks, and farmland. Its work currently spans 70 counties across Tennessee and some areas directly across the state line in Kentucky. It has protected nearly 125,000 acres with landowners and partners since 1999.

The pressures and demands on Tennessee farmland are very real, stresses Emily Parrish, LTTN vice president of conservation. Farmers are getting older. The age of the average farmer in Tennessee is 59 years old, and there are fewer young people choosing to pursue farming as a career. Acres in farmland continue to decline in Tennessee as the demand for land for development increases. The USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service 2012 Census of Agriculture showed a decline of 101,986 acres of Tennessee farmland from 2002 to 2012.

“While the LTTN stands ready to help farmers - or anyone - who is concerned about preserving their property for the future, we are careful to help farmers and landowners understand what a conservation easement does and doesn’t do,”says Emily.

A conservation easement doesn’t transfer ownership of property, she explains. The landowner still owns the property and can use it, sell it, or leave it to heirs. But the easement stays with the property permanently.

Unlike a restriction on a deed, wording in a will, or a hand shake and a promise, a conservation easement is a permanent and legally binding agreement.

“It gives me peace of mind,” says Marianne. “I saw my parents work very hard to keep this farm, and it would be painful to think about it being used for something else.”

Farmers who are considering a conservation easement should do their homework and seek professional legal and financial advice to aid them in the decision-making process. They should also discuss their wishes with heirs, as the easement will restrict future value and uses of the property.

“Landowners can still farm, fish, hunt, and even build additional structures or homes based on the rights they reserve in their conservation easement,” says Emily.

If the property is sold or transferred to another person, the easement remains in effect and will apply to all future owners of the property.

“The easement runs with the land,” says Emily.

One thing an easement cannot do, however, is protect the property against condemnation as part of eminent domain and Emily explains.

There are also costs associated with the process of securing a conservation easement, which can include attorney fees, survey fees, appraisals, and stewardship donations. “While many of these are must be paid to the landowner, he or she may also be eligible for significant tax incentives. Since every situation is different, farmers should consult with a tax professional to learn more.

Each of these points was considered by Washington Farmers Co-op customers Wayne Hughes and wife Pam when they chose to place 134 acres of their property in Afton in a conservation easement in 2009. Those acres were part of the last land grant from the state of North Carolina to his ancestors.

“It was an easy decision,” says Wayne, though he acknowledges that the landowner should consider the priorities and desires of the next generation. “My wife was dedicated to the proposition. My children were too young to understand when I did this. But I would think most people would want to have a conversation with their heirs.”

Wayne has 60 mama cows along with some 40 calves on the ground and two bulls. He also sells his beef to area restaurants. He says he will be able to continue these endeavors while still preserving the nature of the farm, stressing that the land and its heritage are more important than the money.

“I have a lot of myself invested in it,” he says.

Since 2009, Wayne has bought additional acreage that once belonged in the original land grant to his ancestors and is considering placing at least a portion of it in another conservation easement.

“It’s the best legacy I can leave my children,” he says. “Anyone can leave money, but they’re not making any more land.”

A conservation easement is just one tool for farmers to consider when thinking about estate planning and a vision for the future of their farm. Other options include different business structures, wills, gifts, and lease-buy agreements, among others. There are a number of resources available to help farmers learn about the complexities of transferring a farm from one generation to the next.

The LTTN is just one of nine different trust organizations listed on the Tennessee Department of Agriculture website for farmers looking for ways to preserve the future of their farm. Access the page at https://www.tn.gov/agriculture/farms/heritage/ag-farms-farmland-legacy/options.html.

Additional resources are also available at the Farmland Information Center at https://www.farmlandinfo.org. The FIC is a clearinghouse for information about farmland protection and stewardship. It is a partnership between the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service and the American Farmland Trust.

The Land Trust seeks input for strategic conservation plan

The Land Trust for Tennessee is developing a strategic conservation plan to serve as a roadmap as the organization works to protect lands across the state. LTTN is asking for community input for the plan, which will be released in 2019. “We want to hear from all Tennesseans as to what types of lands are important to them,” says Daniel Brown, LTTN director of communications. To participate in the survey, visit LandTrustTN.org/Future.

About The Land Trust for Tennessee:

• Founded: 1999

• Locations: Offices in Nashville and Chattanooga; work across state

• Impact: About 125,000 acres of land, including farmland, parkland, forestland and historic sites conserved across Tennessee

• Organization type: 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization

• Contact: (615) 244-5263, or www.LandTrustTN.org


 
 
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