State preserves another 3,000 acres of farmland

 

With state, USDA and Kent County funds, this Clayton farm was added the state’s farmland preservation program this year at a total cost of $346,508. Originally a 1,500 acre tract of land, the easement was able to preserve 317 acres. The Department of Agriculture noted that 3,039 new acres were added to the preservation program this year at a cost of nearly $4.2 million. (Delaware Department of Agriculture/Stacey Hofmann)

DOVER — There’s a bittersweet joke made among the state’s farmers that goes: “Delaware soil grows houses better than corn.”

Often, farmers looking to expand their acreage have to do so in competition with developers. That, in turn, drives the land prices up and can potentially drive out agricultural investment.

While higher land prices, increased population and a broadened tax base can be seen as benefits to the economy, few in the state would like to see that benefit come at the cost of agricultural activity — still one of Delaware’s biggest industries.

On Thursday, the Delaware Department of Agriculture (DOA) released its annual report that catalogs the new acres of easements selected to be brought into the state’s farmland preservation program.

This is the 21st consecutive year of easement selections by the Delaware Agricultural Lands Preservation Foundation.

According to the DOA, interdepartmental collaboration this year led to the largest round of preservation in several years — 3,039 acres were added this year, bringing the total to more than 124,000 acres of farmland permanently preserved statewide.

Much of the acreage was added to the program due to matching funds provided by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), New Castle County and Kent County Levy Court.

“I am proud to announce the largest round of Delaware farmland permanently preserved through the Delaware Agricultural Lands Preservation Program in the last several years,” said Delaware Secretary of Agriculture Michael Scuse.

“I want to thank the state Natural Resources Conservation Service staff, as well as the Washington, D.C. staff in helping us to obtain funding that we haven’t had for several years. I also want to thank New Castle County and Kent County for their contributions and commitment to preserving farmland.

“It is because of the importance that the General Assembly and the Governor’s office have placed on this program and through the cooperation of our partners, that we can make it possible to keep Delaware land in farming.”

In this round of easement selections there were three farms in New Castle County, 18 in Kent County, and 13 in Sussex County preserved, according to the DOA.

The Delaware Agricultural Lands Preservation Foundation approves applications using a ranking system that seeks to maximize benefits for taxpayers.

The Foundation does not own the land, but rather purchases landowners’ development rights and has a permanent agricultural conservation easement placed on the property.

According to the DOA report, almost $4.2 million was spent this year on the new easements, which they claim comes at a 74 percent discount on average.

County governments can choose to partner with the state program and add county funds to select properties in their areas, leveraging state resources for a bigger impact.

The report notes that New Castle County contributed $194,389 to help purchase development rights on one farm, while Kent County contributed $101,232 to partially purchase development rights on 10 properties.

“We are very pleased to once again partner with the Delaware Department of Agriculture in the preservation of significant working farms in Kent County,” said County Administrator Mike Petit de Mange. “This year, our collective efforts will permanently preserve 10 additional farm properties involving over 600 Acres for agriculture. We see this as a wise investment in the future of our number one industry in Central Delaware.”

The statewide program made its first round of easement purchases in 1996, and has since preserved 21 percent of New Castle County farmland, 37 percent of Kent County farmland and 16 percent of Sussex County farmland.

Preservation eligibility

To become eligible for permanent preservation, DOA spokeswoman Stacey Hofmann said that interested farmers need to have their farmland voluntarily placed in a preservation district for 10 years first, before selling an easement.

“At the end of that 10 years they can decide whether or not to apply to be permanently preserved,” she said. “Being in that district means for 10 years that acreage can’t be used for anything other than agricultural production.”

Delaware currently has more than 53,000 acres of farmland in those preservation districts. Selling an easement in an economic boon to the applying farmer, but it also secures their land for future generations, Ms. Hofmann said.

“A lot of the farmers just want to know that their farms will always be farms,” she said. “They’re very committed to their land. Even if the farmer sells the farm, the easement will be on the deed so the land is perpetually preserved. No matter who buys it, it can’t be developed for anything other than agriculture.”

For the taxpayer, the easements preserve open spaces, protect the agricultural industry and reduce “development sprawl” that can increase infrastructure costs, Ms. Hofmann said.

“A new farmer who needs land or and existing one looking to expand won’t have to compete with a developer on the cost of this land with easements on it in the future because only a farmer will be looking to buy it,” she added.

“So, with the savings from the land purchase, the farmers are able to reinvest that money into their operation — it adds a positive ripple effect to the state’s economy.”

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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