Under conservation easements, farmers voluntarily sell or donate development rights to their land. Landowners may sell the land or pass it along to heirs, but the property must stay in production, and it cannot be developed.
"Conservation easements can help save farmlands, " said Sen. Ralph Okerlund, a Republican from Monroe and a retired dairyman. "We're losing too much of our prime farmland, right now. This is hurting production in the state, and it's hurting the ability of people to make a living as farmers. If we don't start protecting farmlands, we'll lose even more of them."
But Rep. Bill Wright, a Republican dairy farmer from Holden, said conservation easements "put full-time farmers at a disadvantage.
"The people who have conservation easements have a job in town, and they work only part-time on the farm," he said. "They get money for the easement, and they don't have to make a living in agriculture like I do. If my neighbor got a conservation easement, he could sell crops cheaper than I can, and he probably doesn't even need the money."
Full-time farmer Charles Black disagrees.
In 2000, Black Island Farms was the first Utah farm to work with the Utah Quality Growth Commission, The Nature Conservancy and the Utah Department of Agriculture to place a conservation easement on a portion of the property that harbors critical habitat. Black Island Farms is a working vegetable farm along the wetlands in Syracuse. Each year, it opens its fields for harvest festivals and student field trips, and this fall, the farm started a pheasant-hunting club.
"We got some money from the conservation easement to retire some debt, but most importantly, I want my grandchildren to know that this land will be protected forever," said Black. "We can do everything we need to do to keep the farm profitable we can improve the land, build fences and corrals. The only thing we can't do is build homes."
The easement at Black Island Farms was the first project financed by the LeRay McAlister Fund, which has preserved about 80,000 acres of land through conservation easements. During the past 10 years, the state pitched in $20 million, which was matched by $110 million from the federal government and other sources.
Last year, however, Utah lawmakers, as part of a cost-cutting measure, cut off all financing, and if lawmakers don't restore money to the fund next year, "we could be out of business," said John Bennett, executive director of the Utah Quality Growth Commission, which administers it.
Among fund supporters are Lt. Gov. Greg Bell and Agriculture Commissioner Leonard Blackham. Both are on the Utah Agriculture Sustainability Task Force and appeared last week before a legislative interim committee to push for help in restoring the fund. They also advocated other strategies to protect working farms and ranches.
Explosive growth has come at the expense of agriculture, said Blackham, a poultry farmer.
"We must recognize that we cannot continue on the path we have been taking with regard to protecting our prime farmland and expect different results," he said. "Conservation easements are a needed option if we wish to protect our access to locally-grown fruits and vegetables."
This decade alone, Utah has lost 500,000 acres of productive agricultural lands. Blackham said the loss represents acreage on which farmers could have grown "wheat for several hundred million loaves of bread or several billion apples."
Easements are particularly needed for prime farmlands along the populated Wasatch Front, which will take the brunt of expected growth, he said.
Protecting farmlands through conservation easements
A conservation easement is a legal agreement that requires farm or ranch lands to stay in agricultural production.
The property remains in the hands of its original private owner, who at anytime may sell or pass it along to heirs.
By removing the land's development rights, the easement lowers its market value, which in turn lowers estate taxes.
A landowner may sell the conservation easement or donate it, which may bring income and estate tax savings.
The easement is held by a land trust or government agency, such as the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.
Public access to land with a conservation easement in most cases is not part of the legal agreement.
Source: Governor's Office of Planning and Budget