Survey: Ag preservation still popular

A farmer uses a combine to harvest corn near Viola. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Deep in the process of drafting the 2018 Kent County comprehensive plan, the planning department’s surveys indicate that residents are in favor of the $100,000 per year it currently spends on permanently preserving agricultural acres.

When asked, 45 percent of respondents suggested maintaining current funding levels, 43 percent would like to see efforts increase — only 8 percent thought efforts should be decreased. According to planning director Sarah Keifer, the county has already budgeted $100,000 for the program again for FY 2018.

What many residents may not know is that Kent County already leads the state in acres of agricultural land preserved. There are 693 total parcels with a total of over 63,500 acres in permanent preservation in the county. Sussex County comes in second at about 44,000 acres and New Castle has nearly 14,000 acres. Based on the 2012 Ag Census, Kent County’s total acreage is 46 percent farmland.

Earlier this year, the Delaware Agricultural Lands Preservation Foundation completed its 21st consecutive year of easement selections in the preservation program. According to the DOA, interdepartmental collaboration last FY 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.

As it happens, the state itself is among the top ten highest agland preservers in the country. According to the DOA, the state’s Aglands Preservation Program has permanently preserved 24% of the state’s total farmland.

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 last FY 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.

Preservation eligibility

Ms. Keifer says the county’s selection criteria are as follows:

• Location outside of the growth zone overlay district

• Consistency with Kent County comprehensive plan recommendations

• Land Evaluation and Site Assessment (LESA) score of “good” to “high”

• Adjacency to lands for which development rights have been purchased

• Highest percent of discount market value

To become eligible for permanent preservation, 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 year period, farmers can decide whether or not to apply to have their acres permanently preserved. During the 10 year duration, the land can’t be used for anything other than agricultural production.

Selling an easement is an economic boon to the applying farmer, but it also secures their land for future generations, noted DOA spokeswoman Stacey Hofmann.

“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.”

Taxpayer benefits

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 — Delaware’s biggest industry, according to the Secretary of Agriculture Michael Scuse.

“Our state’s agricultural activities make up an approximately $8 billion industry,” he said. “It’s the one really big industry that’s left here. We used to have two automobile plants and several large chemical companies, but the big one that’s still here is agriculture and we want to keep it that way.”

Opponents of this type of preservation spending argue that by restricting these tracts of land, they’re removed from free market competition so they can’t be purchased for potentially more profitable, useful purposes in the future.

But, Mr. Scuse says that these are investments that help secure the future of the agriculture industry.

“It’s extremely important that we have a base of agricultural land that the companies in our region know are going to be here long term,” he said. “Having a quarter of the state’s farmland protected in perpetuity, allows the agricultural industries to make plans for the future.

“There are states, especially in the northeastern part of the country that have lost so much of their agricultural industry and the businesses that support it and are supported by it in the last few decades.

“Our preservation program basically guarantees that this infrastructure will stay here and that supports a lot of business.”

For the taxpayer, the easements preserve open spaces 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.”

Kent County farmer and University of Delaware Agricultural Extension Agent Phillip Sylvester says it’s already difficult for young or beginner farmers to enter the industry because of high equipment, land and input costs.

“Things were a little easier after the housing crash in 2008, but now we’re starting to see more building again,” he said.

“There’s a lot of pressure on farmers to sell their land too, and once housing developments go in, it’s more or less permanent. Once farms are gone, they’re gone.”

Mr. Sylvester also points to quality of life, tourism and support for related industries as taxpayer benefits.

“There is a growing ‘eat local’ movement, and a lot of growers and consumers have taken advantage of community supported agriculture-type programs that offer weekly produce boxes and farmers’ markets,” he said.

“Living in an area where there is still some farmland tucked in between development allows you to still have a diverse range of experiences. There is a fair amount of agri-tourism in the state because of it. We have lots of things like pumpkin patches and Christmas tree farms that are parts of peoples’ family traditions.

“These strategic blocks of land preserve farms for future generations and help prevent us from becoming nothing but houses.”

Taking a cue from recent polling and the fact that she “never gets complaints about the program,” Ms. Keifer is pushing ahead with the 2018 county comp plan and including the line:

“The Levy Court has routinely contributed funds to the preservation program and community feedback indicates support for maintaining or even increasing annual funding.”

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