Forty-two percent, or 10.9 million acres, of Tennessee’s land area is farmland. Tennessee ranks among the top 10 states in the production of beef cattle, tobacco, fresh tomatoes, snap beans, hay and cotton, generating more than $3 billion annually in farm cash receipts.
One of the state’s main visitor draws, according to the Tennessee Department of Tourism, is also the agricultural landscape—its rolling green hills, open farmland, rustic barns and rural back roads. More than 600 agricultural tourism operations can be found across the state, offering farm-based activities ranging from scarecrow festivals and corn mazes to pumpkin picking and hayrides.
In spite of the economic and cultural value that agriculture offers in the state, farmland in Tennessee is now at risk. According to the Tennessee Farmland Legacy Partnership, approximately 1,300 family farms and 100,000 acres of farmland are lost each year across the state.
Tennessee is among the top 10 states in conversion of farmland to development, according to the American Farmland Trust. Nearly 436,000 acres were converted to urban use between 1982 and 1992—about 4 percent of the state's total farmland. Much of this land is taken out of agricultural production and converted to other uses.
In Southeast Tennessee, the greater Hamilton County area and Bradley County have been identified as areas with the highest development pressures on farmland, according to the Land Trust of Tennessee, which works to preserve the unique character of Tennessee's natural and historic landscapes and sites for future generations.
"It behooves us all to be concerned about the loss of farmland in our state because it affects other economic sectors," said Linda Caldwell, executive director of the Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association, which works to promote and preserve natural and cultural resources in McMinn, Monroe and Polk counties through cultural tourism. "One of the top activities for people who visit Tennessee and for people who live here is driving for pleasure, and when visitors go for a drive, they want to look at scenic areas and farmland. I have never had a person call and say they wanted to travel to this region to see our strip malls."
There are a variety of reasons for the loss of farmland in Tennessee. Farmers often find it difficult to pass their farmland to the next generation because of a lack of interest in farming by other family members, a dearth of information on succession planning or because of economic and development pressures.
Fortunately, there are a number of opportunities available to land owners and farmers who want to preserve their land. Local and regional land trusts, organized as charitable organizations under federal tax laws, are directly involved in conserving land for its natural, recreational, scenic, historical and productive values.
Most land trusts can set up conservation easements, purchase land for permanent protection, accept donations of land or the funds to purchase land, and accept bequests.
Conservation easements are an increasingly popular tool used to preserve farmland, historic sites, cultural resources and other types of property. A conservation easement is a voluntary, legally binding agreement that limits certain land uses or prevents development from taking place on a piece of property now and in the future, while protecting the property’s ecological value.
A conservation easement frequently benefits a landowner by permanently protecting the important conservation qualities of a piece of property without the landowner having to give up ownership and by creating potential tax advantages.
"We work with a lot of farmers who are worried that once they pass away, their family will sell the land for development," said Sarah O’Rear, Southeast region assistant project manager with the Land Trust of Tennessee. "Conservation easements are specifically tailored to meet the conservation, financial and tax-planning needs of each landowner. Few conservation easements look alike because few properties are the same and few landowners want exactly the same provisions."
The Foothills Land Conservancy has a total of 110 conservation easement partnerships in 23 counties in Tennessee.
"The farming community needs to know about conservation easements and that there is flexibility in the way they are written," said Elise Eustace, communication and development director for the Foothills Land Conservancy.
In 2011, Color Wheel Farm owners Brad and Kim Black, along with Brad’s sister Jennifer, placed a conservation easement agreement with the Foothills Land Conservancy on the family’s 191-year-old farm in Monroe County, Tenn. This Tennessee farm includes 410 acres of agricultural farmland that is now permanently preserved as a working farm, free from commercial development. Roughly 340 acres are being used for cattle, row crops and switchgrass, while the remaining acreage is woodlands.
"We really thought about the future of our farm, and it was important to us that the agreement include allowances for the future of changing agricultural demands and practices," Brad said. "We also wanted flexibility in the way the easement was written for our kids and their kids. That being said, we made sure the agreement included what we did not want to see."
A federal tax incentive for conservation easement donations, the Conservation Easement Incentive Act has been extended through Dec. 31, 2013, as part of a fiscal cliff package to help landowners conserve their land. Since its beginnings in 2006, the enhanced tax deduction for conservation easement donations has helped land trusts work with farmers, ranchers and other modest-income landowners to increase the pace of conservation to more than a million acres a year. For more information, visit the Land Trust Alliance website.
"We are all seeing the amount of farmland decrease—it’s not just a Tennessee issue—but we want to make sure that people are aware that there are options to preserve land," Eustace said. "Conservation easements are the main way that a landowner can preserve and pass along a property, knowing that it will be preserved for the future."
Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a freelance writer and naturalist living on Walden’s Ridge, whose writing interests include conservation, outdoor adventures and history in the Southeast. Visit her blog at www.YourOutdoorFamily.com.