July 15, 2019 |Emy Brawley | Land

Helping a New Generation of Farmers Gain Access to Farmland through Easements

Rob and Marla Parker* have been cattle ranching in Minnesota for upwards of two decades. When it came time to talk about retirement, the handful of kids they raised on the ranch put their heads together about how to carry on the family operation. With the ranchland itself as the family’s primary asset, it was not clear how Rob and Marla could retire without having to sell the ranch for the maximum dollar. *Names changed by request

A path forward emerged when The Conservation Fund’s Emilee Nelson suggested they consider selling a ranchland conservation easement.

A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or public agency. Under a conservation easement, the landowner sells the future development rights from the property, in order to protect the land’s conservation values. Once land has been permanently protected through a conservation easement, the land value is usually lowered (because it is no longer available for development). This decreased value can make the land more affordable for buyers, including farmers who may want to purchase the land.


Protecting privately held, well-managed grasslands is part of a broader strategy for The Conservation Fund in partnership with Minnesota Land Trust, where grassland is one of the most threatened habitat types. Beyond protecting critical habitat, however, the easement would allow Rob and Marla to sell the development rights to finance their retirement, while selling the ranchland to their children at its agricultural value. The results: their ranchland stays on the tax rolls under the care of excellent land stewards while contributing to the local economy and the conservation goals are accomplished for a fraction of the cost to otherwise directly purchase the land.

Cattle in the pasture on the Minnesota ranch we helped protect with a conservation easement. Photo by Shannon Finney.

With a dual mission of land conservation and economic development, The Conservation Fund places key importance on protecting working lands—our nation’s farms, ranches, and forests. With over 700 working lands transactions to date, protecting over 1.2 million acres, our commitment to this work reflects our values.  We often partner with the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service and many other agencies on this work.

But the real value of farmland protection work is not counted in acres. This work is deeply meaningful to our farm family partners. When it comes time to sell the farm, the option to first sell a farmland conservation easement means the farm can be transferred intact and affordably to the next generation of farmers.

Seeley Farm in Michigan is another great example. Mark Nowak and Alex Cacciari started out with the dream of running a farm producing high-quality, washed and ready-to-eat certified organic salad greens. For two years, Mark and Alex worked to grow their business on 1.5 acres within a farm business incubator program. Then they secured a lease on 30 acres. But it was challenging to be investing time and money into land they didn’t own. When their landlord was ready to sell, Mark and Alex purchased the farm and then sold a farmland conservation easement to the City of Ann Arbor, re-investing the proceeds to facilitate business growth: greenhouses, new barn, utilities. Today, Seeley Farm is a thriving business producing organic produce and flowers for regional grocery stores, restaurants, and local farmers markets—and providing local jobs.

7 15 19 SeeleyFarmSeeley Farm’s Mark Nowak and Alex Cacciari with their family. 

 In Wisconsin, Brian Huiras’s opportunity to move from renting farmland to owning farmland was made possible by a conservation easement sale. The land’s original owners were ready to sell when it became clear none of their kids wanted to take over the farm. Interested in seeing the land preserved, the landowners contacted The Conservation Fund’s David Grusznski, who sat down with them to discuss the option of a farmland conservation easement. The idea of making the farm affordable for an upcoming farmer was appealing, and before too long Brian, who had been farming the land with his dad under a lease for decades, was under contract to purchase the farm at its agricultural value. The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District’s Working Soils program is the Fund’s partner on this project.

Brian Huiras’s farm. Photo by Lindsey Walker.

Michele Woolford remembers when her parents would put her in the backseat of the family car for Sunday drives along Southeast Michigan’s country roads, starting when she was five years old. One day they stopped to talk to a couple who had just placed a “For Sale” sign out in front of their farm. They fell in love with the farm, bought it and moved the family from the city to the country. Michele’s love of farming grew deep, and as an adult she started a farm in North Carolina raising cows, chickens and goats.

Michele Woolford with her husband Dale on her family’s farm in Michigan. Photo by Jacob Hamilton/MLive.com.

Michele always dreamed of returning to Michigan to farm the land where she grew up, but when her parents were ready to retire, they needed to sell the farm and Michele could not compete with real estate developers on price. The opportunity for her parents to sell a conservation easement changed everything, and made it possible for Michele to move back to Michigan with her animals to become the second generation on the farm. “This land means the world to me,” she says.

Stories like these are playing out all over the country, where the average age of farmers is 57.5 years old.  However, not all stories have the same happy endings.  Most mid-sized farms are purchased by larger operations as part of a consolidation, or for real estate development. The next generation of farmers is squeezed from the opportunity to buy their own farm. Farmland conservation easements can create a critical pathway to allow new farmers to secure access to farmland, providing an alternate narrative to the twin stories of farm consolidation and farmland loss, and The Conservation Fund is proud to help facilitate these solutions.

Written by

Emy Brawley

Emy Brawley is The Conservation Fund’s Great Lakes Regional Director and Illinois State Director, providing the full array of the Fund’s programs and services to its conservation partners in the Midwest.  Her work includes farmland protection programs and projects in Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois.