Land trusts are organizations that work with landowners to conserve land. Land trusts are typically nonprofits, also known as charitable organizations or 501(c)(3)s. Land trusts work with landowners interested in protecting land from certain development. Land trusts exist at all scales from very small to very big. Smaller land trusts are staffed by volunteers, while larger land trusts have employees.
Land trusts work cooperatively with landowners to make arrangements for conservation, sometimes purchasing property interests, and sometimes accepting donations of those interests. Land trusts also work to ensure that land previously acquired or placed under a conservation easement continues to be properly protected. Also, in the rare circumstance that land is not properly protected, land trusts work to fix that problem.
Conservation can take many different forms and be for many different purposes. Some conservation purposes include 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. Land trusts also conserve working farms, historic farms, forests, and other open spaces.
To achieve conservation, land trusts can own land and can restrict the use of that land. Alternatively, land trusts can own other interests in land. These interests 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:
A community land trust (CLT) is very similar to a conservation land trust, except that the land ownership is by and for the community, rather than by and for an individual landowner. Community land trusts are led by community residents and public representatives. 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.
To achieve permanent community access to land, community land trusts generally use the same tools as a conservation land trust: full ownership, conservation easements, options, other types of easements, and more. Community land trusts are designed to ensure land is used to benefit the local community where that land is located. In the farming context, community access to farmland owned by a community land trust is generally provided to farmers through a lease.
Examples of community land trusts include:
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.