Helping to Preserve and Make Farmland Affordable
One of the major barriers beginning and established farmers face is gaining access to good, affordable farmland. While small-scale farming in Northwest Arkansas (NWA) has increased with the popularity, and success of many farmers’ markets, overall the number of farms and acres in farming here has decreased for at least the past decade, according to the USDA agriculture Census.
While the population continues to grow in NWA creating opportunities across a variety of industries, the demand for locally grown fruits and vegetables outpaces the supply. In 2020, the Walton Family Foundation launched the NWA Food Systems Initiative to strengthen the region’s capacity to grow food for its residents by expanding opportunities for farmers and increasing consumers’ access to fresh products.
The Northwest Arkansas Land Trust (NWALT) is proud to support the NWA Food Systems Initiative by focusing on growing farmers by increasing their access to farmland as well as resources to farm, and by preserving vital farmland for growing fruits and/or vegetables. Through the NWA Food Systems Farmland Access Fund, (FAF) the land trust helps farmers find farms to grow fruits and/or vegetables on their own. Through a voluntary conservation easement process supported by the fund, the cost of the farmland is reduced, forever protected, and it is more likely to support a viable farm business.
Getting Farmers Growing on Firm Ground
How Does the Process work?
Every farmer and farm is unique, so we must be creative and flexible in our approach.
Here are some possible scenarios.
1. Ideally, NWALT receives farmland as a donation from a landowner wishing to keep it in farming, while also benefiting from possible tax deductions. After the transfer process is complete, NWALT announces the availability of the farm and matches it with qualified farmer applicants interested in buying the land to primarily grow fruits and/or vegetables. We then sell the farm at an affordable price or agricultural value to the qualified farmer with the plan best suited to the land. At the time of sale, we place a conservation easement on the land paid in part by the FAF, and possibly other public and/or other conservation sources. The conservation easement permanently limits development and other uses detrimental to farming.
2. NWALT works with a farmer looking for land to grow fruits and/or vegetables primarily. When the farmer narrows their selection to one or two parcels, we assist them to determine the best possible fit including conducting a soil analysis. NWALT also helps to educate the farmland seller about the possible tax benefits of conservation easements, which also benefit the buyer who can now purchase the farmland at agriculture value. If the seller is not interested in this option, NWALT helps the farmer buy the land at fair market value, and then NWALT buys a conservation easement from the new landowner which puts money back in their pocket.
3. We manage NWA Farm-Link where both farm seekers looking to access land, and farmland owners looking for new opportunities for their land can connect, as well as access resources and receive assistance to support their goals. When they connect and their interests align, we can further assist as described above.
4. We help refer farmers to business-planning, legal, farm-focused financial lenders, farming practices conservation partners, and wholesale coop services to sell their produce or other products. Some of the NWA Food Systems Initiative partners and supporters include the following:
Center for Arkansas Farms and Food
National Agriculture Law Center
The Food Conservancy
National Center for Appropriate Technology
Cooperative Extension Service
Farm Credit of Western Arkansas
USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service
Frequently Asked Questions
Who qualifies for the Farmland Access Fund?
Ideal candidates have at least three years of farming experience, strong farming references, and plan to develop a diversified agricultural enterprise with a focus on fruit and/or vegetable production, in addition to financial resources (or the ability to be financed).
What type of land qualifies for the Farmland Access Fund?
We focus on farms or property at a minimum of 10 acres located in Benton, Carroll, Madison, or Washington Counties of Northwest Arkansas. Other considerations include: Farms and properties with prime soils, soils suitable for growing fruit and/or vegetables, degree of slope, access to water for irrigation, barns, sheds and fencing.
What if I just want to lease farmland?
Farm seekers interested in leasing farmland may also apply and are encouraged to consider creating a farm seeker profile on NWA Farm-Link promoting their interest among farmland owners directly. In addition, stay tuned for more information about a Lease-to-Own Farmland program through NWALT and the NWA Food Systems Initiative.
How do I sign up and when are applications due?
Please contact Susan Koehler, Farmland Preservation Manager at email@example.com or call 479-966-4666.
Applications are accepted at any time. Applicants will receive feedback quickly on their qualifications and possible next steps. The process overall to buy farmland through the FAF can take up to 12 months or more, particularly if public conservation resources are being utilized as a possible complementary funding source.
Where can I see farms or farmland available now?
Please go to NWA Farm-Link and register to use the site. NWALT provides profiles of available farms and properties suitable for farming on this site and we also share listings periodically via email. We are working with farmers and landowners to educate them about the opportunity to further their farm legacy, as well as plan for retirement and succession, and how conservation can benefit them. Farm seekers may also want to search traditional real estate listing services for properties. NWALT has received feedback from established farmers leasing land or who may have facilitated a purchase on their own, that it is important to network in the community to meet farmland owners who may be considering new arrangements for their land.
What is the value of the Farmland Access Fund and how much is available to each farmer?
As part of a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, NWALT is managing the $350,000 Farmland Access Fund.
There is no set formula to what a qualified farm seeker or farmland owner might expect given each circumstance is unique. Qualified applicants with an approved farmland property will receive a formal analysis from NWALT providing what costs associated with conserving the farmland it can cover, such as appraisal, surveys, environmental assessment, and long-term stewardship, as well as the potential value of the conservation easement purchase. In addition, NWALT will explore possible complementary funds through public and/or other conservation partners. We encourage applicants to seek the advice of an attorney and a tax professional throughout the process. We can help refer you if necessary.
What are Conservation Easements?
A conservation easement is a legal agreement between the landowner and the Land Trust that limits certain mutually agreed upon uses of the land to protect its conservation values. An easement may apply to all or a portion of the property and need not require public access. The landowner continues to own and use their land and they can sell it or pass it on to their heirs. The terms of the conservation easement stay with the deed and are upheld by the land trust in perpetuity. Easements can be purchased, but they are usually donated. If the donation benefits the public by permanently protecting important conservation resources and meets other federal tax code requirements, it can qualify as a tax-deductible charitable donation. The amount of the donation is generally the difference between the land’s value with the easement and its value without the easement.
What are Agricultural Conservation Easements?
An agricultural conservation easement (or “ag easement”) is a conservation easement with specific provisions designed specifically to permanently protect farmland and keep it available for farming. Agricultural conservation easements limit non-farm subdivision and development while allowing uses that are consistent with farming. As a farm seeker, farmer, or landowner, you work with the Land Trust to decide which areas will be protected and which uses, and activities will be prohibited in alignment with minimum requirements. Protecting your land with an agricultural conservation easement may provide compensation, several tax benefits, and can also be transferred through sale, lease, or passed down to heirs. Since the development potential has been removed through the easement, the landowner may sell the parcel at agricultural value, making it more affordable for new and beginning farmers.
Look for more information on NWA Farm-Link about the Farmland Access Fund including the application and a checklist.