How conservation can help working farmers achieve their goals
David and Terry Ingram are father-son farmers who recently donated conservation easements on their farms in Brandy Station, in Culpeper County.
Brandy Station is a great place for farming, with rich soils and moderate slopes. In fact, a full two thirds of Culpeper County ranks as farmland of statewide importance.
The road to the Threlkeld Farm, where Terry manages an organic dairy, runs through a wide rolling landscape of crop fields and pastures, punctuated by silos. Along with his farm and his dad’s farm, Terry manages land that he rents from neighbors, cultivating around a thousand acres altogether. The farms produce corn, sorghum, hay and steers, but the main product is organic milk. Terry’s 180 to 190 cows, nourished on grass from the fertile ground, produce 700,000 pounds of milk for sale every year, and he is hoping to bring that figure up to a million pounds.
But this same drive offers a picture of farmland at a crossroads-the view over wide fields broken by an incongruous stand of suburban style houses.
Terry says of the family’s decision to protect their two farms, “One of the important things was to save some farmland, because you see so much of it developed, and it’s obviously never going back to farming.” A couple years ago, Terry, his mother, Boo Ingram, and his brother, Rush Ingram, donated a conservation easement on the 250-acre Threlkeld Farm. Last year Terry’s father David Ingram and aunt, Evelyn Sawyer, donated an easement on the 150-acre Hazel River Farm down the road.
Altogether in nine-county Piedmont region, conservation easements now protect over 325,000 acres, including 147,000 acres of important farm soils.
Among the landowners who are choosing conservation is an increasing number of working farmers who make their living off the land and cannot afford to take lightly decisions about its future potential. Some farmers protect their land through local Purchase of Development Rights programs, which are active in Albemarle, Clarke, Fauquier and Rappahannock. These programs, which primarily serve working farmers, reimburse landowners who decide to retire their development rights. Other farmers, like the Ingrams, find that donating a conservation easement can be an economically viable option that helps them achieve their goals for their farm. A key reason why conservation can work for landowners across the economic spectrum is the unique Virginia Land Conservation Tax Credit-a flexible incentive that can be used to offset state income taxes or can be sold for cash to other taxpayers.
One of the main purposes of conservation easements is to protect land for farming, and standard easement terms specifically reserve the right to carry on farm activities-including agriculture, forestry, equine management, processing and sale of farm goods and construction of most farm buildings. When donating an easement, landowners can also customize terms in order to fit their plans for the land, as long as those plans are in keeping with the public benefits intended by its conservation.
Terry Ingram didn’t plan to go into farming after college, but the tradition of family farming on both his mother’s side and his father’s side drew him back. He made the transition to organic farming for the challenge of it, he says, and because the market for organic products is strong. His dairy farm was certified organic just over a year ago and the milk is sold to the national organic company, Horizon.
Terry says, “One of the neat things in the transition to organic is the actual change in the land and the wildlife. You see things start to come back alive.” Although good farmers are skilled at managing their soils, he says, in general, chemical fertilizers tend to suppress biological activity. Under organic management, he says, “You can the soil change and earthworms start coming in… The soil’s more productive and it seems to attract more wildlife. You see more birds. There’s a lot of foxes and deer. It’s just friendly to nature, so nature is drawn to it. And it’s benefitting the livestock as well.”
As grass-based farmers, the Ingrams focus on raising healthy, robust cattle by grazing them in healthy, robust pastures-rotating their herd to fresh grass twice a day. This back-to-basics approach requires considerable attention, but it can increase profitability by cutting down external costs.
By contrast, David, a retired banker, worked on a family dairy farm years ago, and it frustrated him to see how much of the farm income they lost paying bills for feed and vets and other inputs.
David says he was talking recently with a friend from his Virginia Tech day: “I said, ‘I want you to come down and see our new field chopper.’ I said, ‘That thing is great. It doesn’t have any grease fittings. It doesn’t have any chains. It doesn’t make any noise. It goes across the field and it gets everything.’ He asked ‘What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘We’ve got the cows out there!’
“You know, we used to chop the feed and take it to the cows and feed it to them. Now the cows are getting it themselves and I think that’s just the way to go.”
Planning a Legacy
Still, running the farm takes money. Terry just bought his herd about five years ago. He and his dad and brother recently built a new dairy barn. There are mortgage payments and rent payments. And with land as their greatest asset, how could they afford to donate easements that reduce its development potential and therefore its value?
David Ingram is friends with a developer who tells them that by conserving their land, they’re throwing away the legacy they could leave for their children-but they see it differently.
True, they gave up development potential forever-but by cashing out and selling, they would lose the farm forever, and the farm is the legacy they want to pass on.
Terry, who is married with a three-year-old daughter, says, “The big thing for me is that protecting the land removes the perception that the land is an asset, and makes you a steward and I think that’s a bigger gift to give your grandchildren… Ultimately, what’s going to build wealth in your family is the equity that you’ve got, not the cash, because cash is always fleeting.”
Even in today’s slow market for real estate, conservation incentives can rarely compete with the money to be made in development. But as long as state and federal incentives remain strong, landowners can realize meaningful income in exchange for the development potential of their land-and they still own the land. “For farmers it’s definitely a win-win,” Terry says.
The Ingram family used some of the income from Virginia Land Conservation Tax Credits to pay off debt on their land. The money also provides retirement security for Terry’s parents’ generation-including his mother, Boo Ingram, who was a major advocate for protecting Threlkeld Farm, the legacy of her own hard work. Terry says, “It’s given her a much deserved reward for hanging in there with this farm.” (Boo Ingram also serves on PEC’s Board of Directors.)
Beyond the money, Terry finds that placing the land in conservation easements was useful because it solidified his family’s commitment to the farms-giving him the confidence to make investments like the new dairy barn. “It takes the questions out, and it unifies everybody’s thoughts on how to manage the property,” he says. “Whether it stays in the family or not, it’s always going to be a farm.”