Jorie Emory: Saving Nevada County’s farmland with agricultural conservation easements

Here in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the needs of local farmers and ranchers are changing and our agricultural lands are at risk.

Across the state, California loses approximately 40,000 acres of farmland each year, and this trend is affecting us right here in the Yuba and Bear River watersheds. More and more, local landowners are feeling the pressure to subdivide or convert their land from agriculture to other uses, like commercial or residential development.  The Nevada County Food System Assessment, published in 2020 by the Nevada County Food Council, identified that protecting and expanding agricultural land is a key strategy for creating more community health.  According to the assessment, the county needs almost 20 times the acreage currently used to grow fruits, vegetables and nuts to meet current consumer demand. To address these challenges and protect our local farmlands, Bear Yuba Land Trust uses a tool called an agricultural conservation easement. This solution offers financial incentives to landowners and peace of mind that local agricultural lands will be protected forever.

What is an agricultural conservation easement?

An agricultural conservation easement (or “easement”) is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and Bear Yuba Land Trust that permanently protects a property’s conservation values, while limiting certain uses of the land–such as non-agricultural development or subdivision. Landowners retain the rights of private ownership and management and farmland remains productive. The specific terms of the easement represent a mutual agreement between the landowner and Bear Yuba Land Trust. The landowner’s current uses and future plans for the property are important considerations when embarking on an easement agreement.

Agricultural conservation easements are permanent — they become part of the title associated with the land and remain in effect on the land forever, regardless of change in ownership. So, if the farm or ranch is ever sold, Bear Yuba Land Trust’s conservation easement transfers to the next owner, and farmland remains farmland forever. These landowners are choosing to leave a lasting legacy in our community.

Ongoing stewardship

With each easement, Bear Yuba Land Trust and the landowner take on the responsibility and obligation to protect the conservation values of the property. with easement terms is ensured by annual monitoring site visits. Bear Yuba Land Trust has a Stewardship Assistance Program that allows landowners of easements to partner on grant projects to restore or enhance the land as well.

Bear Yuba Land Trust staff spend significant time and resources to fulfill the legal obligations of an easement. For this reason, Bear Yuba Land Trust establishes endowments to cover the costs associated with our monitoring and reporting responsibilities. The establishment of a stewardship endowment is an essential component in the conservation easement development process thereby ensuring that resources necessary to protect the conservation values persist just as the Land Trust’s responsibilities persist.

Who benefits from agricultural conservation easements?

Agriculture plays a vital role in securing a just and stable future for our communities. Producing foods locally protects the environment, improves access to fresh, healthy food, revitalizes neighborhoods, and boosts local economic opportunities. Establishing agricultural conservation easements not only permanently protects agricultural land from development but also contributes to a thriving local system, where farmers have long-term land security and fresh, local foods are produced and available to consumers year-round.

With each easement Bear Yuba Land Trust holds, our community is one step closer to a healthier, more resilient landscape. With intact farmlands, we are able to better mitigate wildfires, improve our rivers and streams, and protect wildlife habitat. We are able to employ ecosystem services — the benefits that nature provides people — to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect healthy soils that sequester carbon. With agricultural conservation easements, Bear Yuba Land Trust’s goal is to increase farmers’ access to affordable land, encouraging permanence and investment in the land. This approach promotes sustainable agricultural practices, such as managed grazing and regenerative agriculture which enhance and sustain the health of the soil. These benefits are far-reaching and long-lasting.

In protecting farmland forever, Bear Yuba Land Trust safeguards our local natural resources and climate-resilient ecosystems, as well as our community’s distinct rural character and scenic landscapes. Learn more about Bear Yuba Land Trust at www.bylt.org.  To learn more about the Nevada County Food Council and the Nevada County Food System Assessment, please visit https://sierraharvest.org/connect/food-policy-council/

Jorie Emory, Ph.D., is Director of Development and Communications at The Bear Yuba Land Trust

Youth education program at Burton Education Preserve.
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Kramer Ranch agricultural conservation easement.
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Ellis Ranch agricultural conservation easement.
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