Keeping Farmers on Farmland: pursuing creative strategies to protect working lands

- Blog

The secret to protecting working farm and ranch lands is to keep them affordable for the next generation of Washington’s farmers.

Scatter Creek Row Crops
Scatter Creek row crops shine in the sun at Scatter Creek Farm and Conservancy. Photo by Fletcher Ward.


Land trusts like South of the Sound Community Farm Land Trust are using creative ways to support beginning farmers and their rural communities. In the face of urban sprawl and a generational turnover in farmland ownership, land trusts must adopt innovative conservation easement and leasing strategies to be able to protect agricultural resources and strengthen rural economies. The South of the Sound Community Farm Land Trust’s Scatter Creek Farm and Conservancy offers ingenuity in mixing-and-matching conservation strategies that best serves its community.

Saving farmland with the next generation of farmers
Scatter Creek Farmers
Farmers at Fletcher Creek Farm and Conservancy. Photo by Fletcher Ward

In the land of apples, cherries, and wheat, agriculture is king. In fact, 34 percent of Washington’s acreage is in agriculture. Despite this, Washington is losing productive farmland. During the 10 years between 1997 and 2007, Washington state lost 679,000 acres of farmland, a loss of 4.3% during those years.

This unfortunate loss of farmland will be exacerbated in the coming years as older farmers move into retirement and sell their properties. The average age of a Washington farmer is 58 years old. As these farmers retire over the next two decades, it is expected that two-thirds of the nation’s farmland will transfer ownership. Our ability to produce food, support rural economies, and protect our agricultural resources depends on ensuring that the next generation of farmers are able continue farming this land, keeping working lands in production.

The rising price of farmland

The next generation of farmers can be an asset to land trusts seeking to protect working farms, but the truth is, most young and beginning farmers cannot afford the steep price tag of today’s farmland. Pressure from estate buyers and commercial and residential developers are driving up farmland prices around the nation, resulting in land that is largely unaffordable for someone earning only a farm income.

Land trust innovations to making farmland affordable

Traditional conservation easements are designed to protect farmland from development, but they do not prevent non-farmers from purchasing protected farms as estate properties. Even when land is protected, if it’s not affordable to the next generation of farmers, that land may end up underutilized or taken out of production altogether.

Today, land trusts are exploring adding innovative language to their conservation easements, such as Affirmative Farming Requirements (AFR) and the Option to Purchase at Agricultural Value (OPAV). AFR and OPAV augment the easement to ensure that land is kept in production and affordable.

Another strategy that provides the opportunity to build equity and offers land security to beginning farmers is the Community Land Trust (CLT) model of farmland preservation. In this model, the land trust owns the farmland and provides a 99-year Agricultural Ground Lease (AGL) to the farmer. The farmer owns the house, barns, and other infrastructure on leased land, and thus can build equity. The farmer pays an affordable ground lease fee based at the agricultural value of the property, which is almost guaranteed to be lower than the real estate value.

Land trusts spring into action

The Scatter Creek Farm and Conservancy offers a glimpse into the future of working farmland protection. On these 147-acres of prime farmland, the South of the Sound Community Farm Land Trust and the Creekside Conservancy employ a creative three-pronged approach, by dedicating a third of the land to a long-term Agricultural Ground Lease, a third of the land to an Incubator Farm, and a third of the land to a river-side conservation area.

The Agricultural Ground Lease: Kirsop Farm

The Land Trust offers equity and security through a 99-year Agricultural Ground Lease with a farmer family. Genine Bradwin and Colin Barricklow are first-generation farmers that lease 66 acres of this farmland through a 99-year Agricultural Ground Lease. They are the owners of Kirsop Farm, producing vegetables, wheat, and triticale for Olympia and Seattle-area farmers markets. At Scatter Creek Farm, Bradwin and Barricklow bought the white farmhouse, a milking parlor, and two barns. A renewable 99-year lease with the land trust gives them access to the land in perpetuity, so they can keep farming with security in their land tenure.

A hub for agricultural activity: the Incubator Farm

Scatter Creek Chehalis River
Scatter Creek is a tributary of the Chehalis River. Photo by Fletcher Ward.

The Land Trust supports access to land and training for beginning farmers through its partnership with the non-profit Enterprise for Equity. Enterprise for Equity leases an additional 33 acres of Scatter Creek Farm for its farm incubator program, which offers beginning farmers temporary, affordable access to small parcels of land, infrastructure, and training, for the purpose of gaining the market and skills to launch a farm business. Since its establishment, the program has already hosted several small enterprises, including a vegetable production farm and a poultry business.

The Conservation Area: The Chehalis River

The Scatter Creek Farm and Conservancy also accomplishes ecological goals by making sure that 48 acres or river-side habitat was set aside for conservation. The 48 acres, owned by Creekside Conservancy and bordering the Chehalis River, is dedicated to conservation for wildlife and the protection of salmon habitat and water quality in perpetuity.


Keeping Farmers on Farmland

Land trusts like South of the Sound Community Farmland Trust are using creative ways to support beginning farmers, but there is more work to do. Land trusts must continue adopting innovative conservation easement and leasing strategies to protect agricultural resources and their farmer stewards. Learn more about how land trusts can work with beginning farmers in the National Young Farmers Coalition publication: Farmland protection 2.0: How land trusts can protect America’s working farms.


Check out video about farmers Colin Barricklow and Genine Bradwin of Kirsop Farm: