Land trust

Graphic courtesy of Melanee Cottrill. 

A recent merger between two land trusts focused on farmland protection has garnered support and hope from East County farmers.

When Kathryn Lyddan, former executive director of Brentwood Agricultural Land Trust (BALT), left her seat to accept a position with the State Department of Conservation, the BALT board decided it was time to merge with Central Valley Farmland Trust (CVFT). According to Tom Bloomfield, owner of Bloomfield Cherries, the merger courtship transpired over the last two years and was finalized in December. The trust’s new name is California Farmland Trust.

“I am very excited (to merge with CVFT), being a larger and more sustainable organization,” said Bloomfield, who also served on the BALT board prior to the merger. “Ours had gotten to the point where you had to grow to be sustainable. This is a very small ag area, and we probably shouldn’t have had our own local land trust, but the good thing was all of these local easements have landed in the lap of a very responsible organization that will steward throughout everyone’s lifetime.”

Bloomfield went on to explain that CVFT was the go-to agricultural farm trust of the state and was issued mitigation funds when the construction of railways resulted in a loss of agriculture. 

“Those mitigation funds were given to CVFT, so they have been accredited twice, and annually, they have a thorough accreditation process, which is expensive, and small trusts for the most part can’t afford to do it,” he said.

Within the farmland trust realm, accreditation is a mark of distinction, indicating that a trust meets high standards for land conservation. And the role of a farmland trust is to make sure agricultural easements – a deed restriction landowners voluntarily place on their property to protect its resources – are not being developed upon. BALT previously held nine easements, totaling approximately 850 acres, which were acquired by CVFT during the merger.

“When you place an easement, you have to go out once a year to make sure no one is building on it that shouldn’t be, and sometimes other things happen that you have to deal with,” said Melanee Cottrill, California Farmland Trust associate director. “For instance, the Balfour Road widening project is actually happening on some of our properties, so we’re working with the city and the state, and they’re condemning that but then we’re getting a payout for it to protect other land. The government can condemn it, but then they have to make up for it elsewhere.”

Land trusts don’t buy any land – they only hold the easement, Cottrill further explained. 

“When you buy land, you have rights that go with it. What the easement does is buy the development right and the owner gets a payout for giving up the right to develop it,” she said, noting the process to be an attempt to give farmers tempted by developers another route to earn money for their land while maintaining their farm.

Bloomfield noted the last time farmland was preserved in Brentwood was about seven years ago.

“(The merger is) going to be good for those farmers in Brentwood who sold easements and are going to have a responsible agency overseeing that part of their property that has a restriction on it,” said Bloomfield.

Other local farmers agree.

“We at Cecchini & Cecchini and First Generation Farmers believe the merger of BALT and CVFT will give farmers more options to protect their farmland. We also love the new name California Farmland Trust,” said Barbara Cecchini, co-owner.

Programs being developed within the newly formed California Farmland Trust include Raley’s Field Trips on the Farm. Paid for with funds from Raley’s, the land trust will host field trips that bring fourth- to sixth-grade students to a working farm and then to the Raley’s produce department to showcase how local food goes from farm to fork. Marsh Creek Elementary School in Brentwood has already secured a trip for its students. 

Along with a new name, partners and programs, California Farmland Trust has also identified a new mission statement: to help farmers protect the best farmland in the world. This claim is substantiated by figures that showcase the U.S. as being one of the top four food-producing countries in the world, according to Investopedia. And the USDA indicates California ranks above the other 49 states, producing 99 percent of the U.S. production of almonds, artichokes, dates, figs, raisins, kiwi, olives, cling peaches, dried plums, pomegranates, rice and walnuts and nearly 95 percent of the nation’s apricots, grapes, lemons, mandarin, nectarines, plums and strawberries. In terms of how nonfarming residents can help protect these farms, Cottrill said to pay attention to talks of moving the urban limit line and vote wisely.

“Whenever a city council speaks of moving the urban limit line, that means development can appear in spaces once set aside for agriculture,” said Cottrill. “The land we protect has to be farmed. There are other organizations that do open space, but we’re in the business of making sure people have food. Without the farmland, the water rights, the politics, nothing else matters. Generally speaking, when people see land on the edge of town, they see open space that can be built on, and we want to change that perception – protecting agriculture keeps our food local, fresher and sustainable.”

For more information on California Farmland Trust, visit http://cafarmtrust.org.

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