Agricultural easements can address farmland preservation and farm transition goals

By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Wednesday, October 18th, 2023

Questions from farmers and farmland owners about agricultural easements are on the rise at the Farm Office.  Why is that?  From what we’re hearing, the questions are driven by concerns about the loss of farmland to development as well as desires to keep farmland in the family for future generations.  An agricultural easement is a unique tool that can help a farmland owner and farming operation meet goals to protect farmland from development or transition that land to the next generation.  Here are answers to some of the questions we’ve been hearing.

What is an agricultural easement?  An agricultural easement is a voluntary legal agreement by a landowner to use land primarily for agricultural purposes and forfeit the right to develop the land for other purposes, either permanently or, less often, for a term of years.  In an agricultural easement, a landowner grants an easement “holder” the legal right to enforce the easement against a landowner or other party who attempts to convert the land to a non-agricultural use. A written legal instrument details and documents this agreement between a landowner and the easement “holder.”  The agricultural easement instrument must be recorded in the county land records, and the agricultural easement is binding on all future landowners for the duration of its term.

A state legislature must authorize the use of the agricultural easement instrument, and Ohio’s legislature did so in 1999.  At that time, the legislature adopted a detailed legal definition of “agricultural easement” in Ohio Revised Code 5301.67(C):

“Agricultural easement” means an incorporeal right or interest in land that is held for the public purpose of retaining the use of land predominantly in agriculture; that imposes any limitations on the use or development of the land that are appropriate at the time of creation of the easement to achieve that purpose; that is in the form of articles of dedication, easement, covenant, restriction, or condition; and that includes appropriate provisions for the holder to enter the property subject to the easement at reasonable times to ensure compliance with its provisions.

The legislature also required in Ohio Revised Code 5301.68 that a landowner may only grant an agricultural easement on land that qualifies for Ohio’s Current Agricultural Use Valuation (CAUV) program under Ohio Revised Code 5713.31.

Is an agricultural easement the same as a conservation easement?  No, not in Ohio, but they share the same legal concept of dedicating land to a particular use.  Ohio also allows a landowner to grant a conservation easement, which is a promise to retain land predominantly in its natural, scenic, open, or wooded condition and forfeit the right to develop the land for other purposes.  A conservation easement might allow agricultural land uses, and an agricultural easement might allow some conservation uses.  The terms used in federal law and some other states vary from Ohio, and include “agricultural conservation easement” or “agricultural land easement.”

Who can be a “holder” of an agricultural easement?  Ohio law answers this question in Ohio Revised Code 5301.68, which authorizes only these entities to enter into an agricultural easement with a landowner:

  • The director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture;
  • A municipal corporation, county, or township;
  • A soil and water conservation district;
  • A tax exempt charitable organization organized for the preservation of land areas for public outdoor recreation or education, or scenic enjoyment; the preservation of historically important land areas or structures; or the protection of natural environmental systems (generally referred to as a “land trust” or a “land conservancy.”)

What kinds of land uses would be inconsistent with keeping the land in agricultural use?  That depends on the terms in the written deed for the agricultural easement.  Activities that might violate the agreement to maintain the land as agricultural include subdivision of the property, commercial and industrial uses, major surface alterations, and oil and gas development.  It’s typical to identify the homestead or “building envelope” area and allow new buildings, construction and similar activities within that area, but those activities might not be permitted on other parts of the land.  Review the  Ohio Department of Agriculture’s current Deed of Agricultural Easement through the link on this page:  https://agri.ohio.gov/programs/farmland-preservation-office/landowners.

Can a landowner transfer land that is subject to an agricultural easement?  Yes.  An agricultural easement does not restrict the right to sell or gift land, but it does carry over to the new landowner.  That landowner must abide by the terms of the agricultural easement.

Are there financial incentives for entering into an agricultural easement?  Yes.  There are several financial incentives:

  • The Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Office of Farmland Preservation oversees the Local Agricultural Easement Purchase Program, which provides Clean Ohio grant funds to certified local sponsors to purchase permanent agricultural easements in their communities.  It’s a competitive process that requires a landowner to work with an approved local sponsor to apply for the program and to donate at least 25% of the agricultural easement’s value if selected.  A landowner can receive up to 75% of the appraised value of the farm’s “development rights,” with a payment cap of $2,000 per acre and $500,000 per farm per application period.
  • Federal funds are also available through the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. This program is also competitive and requires a landowner to work with an approved partner to determine eligibility and apply for easement funding.  NRCS may contribute up to 50 percent of the fair market value of the agricultural land easement.
  • There are also federal income tax incentives for donating a portion or all of an agricultural easement’s value to a qualified charitable organization.  Internal Revenue Code section 170(h) allows a landowner to deduct the value of the easement up to 50 percent of their adjusted gross income (AGI) in the year of the gift, with a 15-year carryover of excess value.  That AGI percentage increases to 100% for a “qualified farmer” who earns more than 50% of their gross income from farming.
  • There can also be federal estate tax benefits for land subject to a permanent agricultural or conservation easement.  The land is valued at its restricted value, which lowers the estate value.  Additionally, Section 2055(f) of the Internal Revenue Code allows donations of qualifying easements to a public charity to be deducted from the taxable value of an estate.  Up to 40% of the value of land restricted by an agricultural or conservation easement  can be excluded from the value of an estate if the easement meets Internal Revenue Code section 2031(C) provisions, limited to $500,000.

How can a family use an agricultural easement to enable farm transition goals?  Here’s an example.  John and Sue are fourth generation owners of 250 acres of farmland they plan to leave to their child Lee, and they want the land to remain as farmland into the future.  Lee is committed to farming and wants to farm, and John and Sue would like Lee to have more land to improve the viability of the farming operation. They find a local sponsor and apply to Ohio’s Local Agricultural Easement Purchase Program, offering to donate 25% of the agricultural easement value to the program.  They are selected for the funding and receive a payment of $2,000 per acre for the agricultural easement.  They use the $500,000 in easement proceeds to purchase additional farmland for Lee.  John and Sue receive a federal income tax credit for the portion of the easement value they donated to qualify for the program, and carryover the amount until it is fully used, up to 15 years.

What are the drawbacks of agricultural easements?  There are challenges and drawbacks of agricultural easements, and we’ll discuss those in our next blog post.

Agricultural easements require legal and tax advice and careful planning.  Our short Q&A doesn’t address all of the nuances of agricultural easements.  It’s a big decision, and one that should align with current goals and estate and transition plans.  To determine if an agricultural easement works for your situation, seek the advice and planning assistance of knowledgeable legal and tax professionals.

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