Land trusts are generally nonprofit, charitable organizations that own and manage land, or own and manage certain property interests that attach to the land. They are usually tax exempt organizations, organized under IRS Code Section 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(2).
Conservation land trusts purchase or accept donations of land or easements on land to limit development and preserve wildlife habitat, farmland, forests, and open space. They often work cooperatively with landowners to conserve land, and to ensure that land previously acquired or placed under a conservation easement continues to be properly protected.
Community land trusts can own and manage land for a number of different purposes, including affordable housing, parks and playgrounds, community gardens, and open space generally.
Conservation land trusts can focus on protecting natural habitat, water quality, or scenic views, ensuring that the land is available for farming, forestry, or outdoor recreational use, or protecting other values provided by open land. Community land trusts can have many different purposes, including providing affordable housing, affordable commercial rent, and green space for residents.
To achieve their purposes, conservation land trusts can own land and restrict the use of that land, or they can own property interests in the land. These interests can include conservation easements, affirmative agricultural easements, options to purchase at agricultural value (OPAVs), and more.
In addition to traditional conservation projects, land trusts can promote conservation in innovative ways, such as:
Learn more about how farmers work with land trusts through these real-world farmer stories:
Land trusts come in different varieties, including conservation land trusts, preservation trusts, community land trusts, and more. Government entities, either on their own or in partnership with a land trust, can also be the holder of easements to protect and conserve farmland.
A conservation land trust is an organization that establishes ownership for the purpose of making sure land stays undeveloped and protected for future generations. The two basic ways conservation land trusts use to do this are 1) purchasing land or 2) purchasing a conservation easement on land.
Some examples of conservation land trusts and related organizations mentioned in this toolkit include:
Community land trusts are charitable, community-based organizations, led by community residents and public representatives, and have primarily been used to promote long term housing affordability. In the farming context, community land trusts generally work to ensure community stewardship of land by ensuring permanent access, control, affordability, and stewardship of the land for the community and future generations.
Community land trusts are generally designed to ensure land is used to benefit the local community where that land is located. In the farming context, community access to farmland and forests owned by a community land trust is generally provided to farmers through a long term lease.
Examples of community land trusts that provide affordable housing, among other things, include:
This type of land trust combines certain aspects of both community and conservation land trusts.
Agricultural land held “in common” by a community land trust can provide many benefits.
SPOTLIGHT on Agrarian Trust’s Agrarian Commons
Agrarian Trust is a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to support land access for next generation farmers. In May 2020, Agrarian Trust supported 10 local communities to create Agrarian Commons across the US. Building on models of land ownership for local communities built by civil rights activists such as Charles and Shirley Sherrod (New Communities, Inc.), these local projects provide an example of how community land trusts that hold agricultural land can actually work. Each Agrarian Commons:
Here is a Guide for creating an Agrarian Commons, or any community land trust for agricultural holdings based in community; these tools can be used for creating an Agrarian Commons in partnership with Agrarian Trust, or to help develop a community land trust that is not an Agrarian Commons. The purpose of sharing these documents is to encourage many different types of shared land stewardship projects, to support more commons creation in all the diverse ways a community may find useful. More documents will be shared as they are created.
At the local, state, and federal levels, government agencies can also be holders of farm-related easements, either as a government entity or in partnership with a land trust organization. Government-held easements can be on private property; governments can also lease government-owned land to farmers directly. Real-world examples include:
When James Graves and Sara Kurak of Full and By Farm first found their property in Essex, New York, it was owned by the nonprofit Eddy Foundation and would have been too expensive for James and Sara to purchase at market price. To make the land affordable, the Eddy Foundation sold 100 acres to James and Sara but simultaneously purchased a conservation easement on those 100 acres, reducing the net cost to James and Sara and fulfilling the Foundation’s conservation goals. Learn more about Full and By Farm and the process of negotiating conservation easement terms here.
The Countryside Initiative Program is a program of the Countryside Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the rural character of the Cuyahoga Valley in Cuyahoga, Ohio. The Countryside Conservancy partnered with Cuyahoga Valley National Park to create the program, which acts as a matchmaker between farmers and farmland in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
The farmland in the park is leased by the National Park Service to farmers who are committed to sustainable agriculture and responsible stewardship of the land. There are currently nine farms on the park, including Greenfield Berry Farm, a pick-your-own berry farm owned and operated by Daniel and Michele Greenfield. Learn more about how Daniel and Michele worked with the federal government and the Countryside Initiative Program to access land here.
Although working with land trusts can be beneficial for farmers, landowners and land-seekers should be aware that working with land trusts has its challenges.
It’s not an attorney’s job to make decisions for farmers or to set farm transfer goals. Instead, attorneys can provide information about pros and cons of different options, advice about what is common versus unusual, fair versus unfair, etc. Attorneys can help farmers understand the range of possible farm transfer goals and help narrow down individual options so that farmers can make final decisions.
The Center for Agriculture and Food Systems is an initiative of Vermont Law School, and this toolkit provides general legal information for educational purposes only. It is not meant to substitute, and should not be relied upon, for legal advice. Each farmer’s circumstances are unique, state laws vary, and the information contained herein is specific to the time of publication. Accordingly, for legal advice, please consult an attorney licensed in your state.