Protect Farm and Ranch Land

State Programs

Over the years, state governments have used broad regulatory powers to create innovative farmland protection programs. State legislatures have created and funded state-level programs to protect farmland, and have enacted legislation and allocated funding to enable local governments to create their own programs.  States have also established tax policies to incentivize protecting farmland and set rules for local governments to implement land use regulations that protect farms.  

Agricultural Conservation Easements

An agricultural conservation easement (ACE) is a deed restriction landowners voluntarily place on their property to protect productive agricultural land. They are used by landowners to authorize a qualified conservation organization or public agency to monitor and enforce the restrictions set forth in the agreement. In general, ACEs limit subdivision, non-farm development and other uses of the land that are incompatible with farming. 

Agricultural Districts

Agricultural District Programs allow farmers to form special areas where commercial agriculture is encouraged and protected. Programs are authorized by state legislatures and implemented at the local level. Enrollment in agricultural districts is voluntary. In exchange for enrollment farmers receive a package of benefits that varies from state to state.  

Definitions of Agriculture 

Definitions for “agriculture” and “agricultural activities” vary from state to state. For terms such as “farming” and “agriculture” states may use multiple definitions in separate sections of their own legal codes.  For the purpose of a state farmland protection program these definitions can be used to limit or expand eligibility and to help ensure the program works as intended.

Differential Assessment and Circuit Breaker Tax Programs

Tax incentives are widely used to maintain the economic viability of farming. All states have at least one program designed to reduce the amount of money farmers are required to pay in local real property taxes.

The most important type of agricultural tax program is the differential assessment, also known as current use assessment and use value assessment. Nearly every state has a differential assessment program that allows officials to assess farmland at its agricultural use value, rather than its fair market value, which is generally higher. Three states—Michigan, New York and Wisconsin —allow farmers to claim state income tax credits to offset their local property tax bills. These programs are called “circuit breakers” because they relieve farmers of real property taxes that exceed a certain percentage of their income. Iowa and New York offer a credit against school taxes on agricultural land.

Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement Programs

Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement programs (PACE) compensate property owners for restricting the future use of their land. PACE is known as Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) in many locations. Landowners voluntarily sell agricultural conservation easements to a government agency or private conservation organization that is responsible for enforcing the easement. Conservation easements restrict further development of the property while allowing landowners to retain other rights of ownership. 

Right to Farm Laws 

Right-to-farm laws are designed to accomplish one or both of the following objectives: (1) to strengthen the legal position of farmers when neighbors sue them for private nuisance; and (2) to protect farmers from anti-nuisance ordinances and unreasonable controls on farming operations. Right-to-farm provisions may be included in state zoning enabling laws, and most include additional provisions to protect farmers. 

Federal Programs

The federal government's role in farmland protection began in the late 1970s when the USDA and the President's Council on Environmental Quality commissioned the National Agricultural Lands Study, a two-year project to document the extent and causes of farmland loss. The study found that large areas of agricultural land were being developed and ultimately led to the enactment of the Farmland Protection Policy Act in 1981. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA NRCS) implements the key federal policies and programs that protect the nation’s farm and ranch land.

Agricultural Conservation Easement Program / Agricultural Land Easements

The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) provides technical and financial assistance to landowners to conserve and protect farm and ranch lands, grasslands and wetlands. Under the Agricultural Land Easements (ALE) component, USDA NRCS partners with eligible entities to buy agricultural conservation easements on working agricultural lands, keeping land available for agriculture and limiting non-farm development.

Farmland Protection Policy Act

The purpose of the Farmland Protection Policy Act (FPPA) is to minimize the conversion of farm and ranch land through federal activities to non-agricultural uses. The FPPA stipulates that federal programs be compatible with state, local and private efforts to protect farmland. The FPPA also outlines a public education role for USDA and calls for the establishment of a Farmland Information Center, currently fulfilled by AFT’s Farmland Information Center.

National Resources Inventory

The National Resources Inventory (NRI), conducted by USDA NRCS, is a nationwide survey of natural resource conditions and trends on non-federal land. The NRI provides data about soil erosion, wildlife habitat, wetlands, and conservation practices. It also tracks changes in land cover/use. The NRI is the best source for agricultural land conversion data and is typically released every five years beginning in 1982. 


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