New program & commission to protect Oregon ag heritage
From protecting agricultural lands using easements and covenants, to helping farmers and ranchers keep their operation in the family through succession planning, the newly formed Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program and its soon-to-be formed commission offer hope that working lands stay in production while providing conservation benefits. At its core, the new program incentivizes farmers and ranchers to support voluntary practices that are good for agriculture and the state’s natural resources.
“Farm and ranch lands in Oregon supply high quality food and fiber along with habitat for fish and wildlife.” said Meta Loftsgaarden, Executive Director of the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB). “By providing agricultural landowners with voluntary tools to steward their land and pass it on to the next generation, the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program will help strengthen our ag communities and safeguard the fish and wildlife habitats that depend upon Oregon’s agricultural land.”
Established by the 2017 State Legislature, the offers two highlights, according to Oregon Department of Agriculture’s land use specialist, Jim Johnson.
“It allows for the state to get more involved in the use of agricultural conservation easements to protect agricultural land in a way that complements our land use planning program– keeping agricultural land in agricultural use,” says Johnson. “It also focuses on helping farmers with succession planning.”
With oversight from the commission, the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program will offer a number of tools that help keep working ag and forest lands and the natural resources they support from disappearing, ultimately assisting conservation efforts.
“I can’t think of a better use of land to protect fish and wildlife than farming and ranching,” says Johnson. “Without that farm use protection, other land uses would take hold, including development, that probably won’t complement fish and wildlife habitat the way farm and forest lands do.”
A conservation easement is a voluntary, legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency which permanently limits the use of that land to protect its conservation values. The landowner is compensated with cash and/or tax benefits in exchange for conserving the land. Agricultural conservation easements are easements that allow the protected land to be used for agriculture. Again, most holders of an easement are usually a land trust or government agency.
“Easements protect a family’s legacy and they can make the land available for farm use for future generations, helping with land succession,” says Johnson. “Easements are great complements to the existing land use planning program. And, of course, they can help protect restoration efforts. If you want to make sure those restoration efforts remain in place for a long time, an easement can help.”
One task for the upcoming commission is to create rules governing the program’s fund for conservation easements and other potential tools, and make recommendations on grant applications to the OWEB Board.
Succession planning has also been identified as a potentially effective tool for keeping land in agricultural production. That’s especially important with an increasingly aging population of farm operators.
“When you consider the management of Oregon farms is predominantly family operated, a change in ownership is a real issue in terms of what will happen to that land base,” says Johnson.
Whenever there is a change of farm ownership, there is likely to be some consideration of what to do with that land. Massive changes in ownership could potentially mean big changes in agriculture.
“In Oregon’s land use system, agricultural land is primarily designed for farm use, but that doesn’t preclude converting that land to non-farm uses or somebody acquiring the land and deciding not to farm it at all,” says Johnson.
Succession planning– a legal process of passing the family farm down to the next generation– is a critically important tool that is underutilized by aging farmers and ranchers. The Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program will work to provide succession planning training and support for landowners.
To make the program work, the commission needs to be formed. Applications are currently being taken to serve on the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Commission with a deadline of October 25. In filling the commission’s 12 positions, existing boards and commissions have been tapped to recommend candidates for approval by the OWEB Board. The State Board of Agriculture will recommend four candidates who are actively engaged in farming or ranching. They must represent diverse types of agricultural commodities and be from geographically diverse areas of Oregon. A fifth position with expertise in agricultural water quality will be recommended by the Board of Agriculture. Other members will represent fish and wildlife interests, tribal interests, natural resource value interests, and an expert in conservation easements or similar land transfers.
“The type of people who should consider applying are those supportive of protecting Oregon agriculture for the long term, those who understand Oregon’s land use planning program, and those who are willing to spend time to have discussions that lead to the drafting of rules and recommendations,” says Johnson.
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