The benefits of farmland protection are innumerable: from clean waterways and air, to fresh local foods and jobs, to climate change mitigation . . . the list goes on.

The primary tool MALT employs to protect farmland is called an agricultural conservation easement. But what does that mean, exactly? How does it work? Why do we use them? And who benefits? We’ve answered these pressing questions below to help you better understand the work we do together.

What’s an agricultural conservation easement?

A MALT agricultural conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between MALT and a landowner that permanently protects a property’s conservation values, like productive farmland and wildlife habitat, while limiting development and certain land uses. The landowner retains many of their rights, including the right to own and manage the land, and the land continues to be used for farming and ranching.

MALT agricultural conservation easements are perpetual — they become part of the title associated with the land and remain in effect on the land forever, regardless of change in ownership. So, if the farm or ranch is ever sold, MALT’s conservation easement transfers to the next owner, legally binding any future owner to its terms. This is how farmland stays farmland forever. 

Agricultural conservation easements prohibit non-agricultural residential and commercial development, subdivision and other uses or practices that are detrimental to the agricultural and natural resource values of the land. MALT conservation  easements also require that protected properties continue to operate as working farmland that provides sustainably-grown food to Marin and Bay Area communities while safeguarding wildlife habitat and the ecological health of the region. 

By restricting certain uses on a property, the easement lowers the value of the land. MALT compensates agriculturalists for the loss of that value by purchasing the agricultural conservation easement. Once the easement has been purchased and recorded, MALT extinguishes the development rights on the protected farmland. 

It may sound simple but every agricultural conservation easement is complex and tailored to the property’s unique characteristics. This can include its agricultural and natural resources, current land use restrictions, existing agricultural operations and the agriculturalist’s future plans for the land.

MALT staff ensures that the terms of the agricultural conservation easements are honored through annual farm and ranch visits, consultations with agriculturalists on permitted land uses and a technical assistance program that provides conservation and sustainable management resources. 

Why are agricultural conservation easements necessary?

Throughout the nation agricultural land is lost to development at a staggering rate of 175 acres every hour — that’s three acres every minute. California alone makes up one-eighth of the country’s farm production, yet loses fifty-thousand acres of farmland every year. 

Conservation easements have been used for over a century in the United States by land trusts and governments to protect important agricultural and natural resources on privately-owned land. They are the most effective tool used in protecting privately-owned lands for ecological conservation and agricultural preservation. 

For 40 years, MALT has protected Marin’s treasured agricultural lands and thriving agricultural community. To date, MALT has preserved more than 55,000 acres of Marin farmland using conservation easements, which is more than half of the farmland MALT has set out to protect. Agricultural conservation easements allow people to protect the land they love from development, while supporting Marin’s robust agricultural economy and community. See MALT’s impact here.

Who benefits from MALT easements?

Our local, state and federal governments recognize that working agricultural lands provide valuable environmental resources, and that the preservation of farmland provides significant public benefits. Many local, state and federal policies and programs have been implemented to support agricultural land protection. In October 2020, Governor Newsom signed an executive order calling on agriculturalists to join the fight against climate change, recognizing the impact agricultural land conservation can have in climate resiliency.

MALT knows that purchasing agricultural conservation easements not only permanently protects agricultural land from development but, most importantly, offers tremendous public benefits, immediate and long term. 

In protecting farmland forever, MALT safeguards Marin’s thriving local food system and agricultural community; habitat and connectivity for more than 100 species of wildlife; natural resources and climate-resilient landscapes; and Marin’s agricultural character.

In addition to offering tremendous public benefits, the compensation landowners receive when selling an agricultural conservation easement to MALT can also benefit their family and the local economy. What we at MALT often observe is a reinvestment of funds into the resiliency of the agricultural operation itself and sustainable management of the land. Marin agriculturalists have used capital from conservation easements to establish world-renowned creameries and provide realistic opportunities to transition farmland from one generation to another. 

But that is just the beginning of the story. 

Once a conservation easement is in place on a property, MALT staff and the agriculturalists really get to work, managing the land to sequester carbon, protect and improve creeks and streams, and implement cutting-edge and sustainable agricultural practices. For Marin County residents, this means climate change mitigation, clean waterways, healthy ecosystems, protected habitat for native fish and wildlife, and scenic vistas. Learn more about MALT’s stewardship work.

MALT easements also require continued agriculture, regardless of who owns the land in the future. For communities near and far this translates to continued access to healthy local produce, ethically-raised meats, climate-conscious wool products and world-famous cheese.

If you’re an agriculturalist and want to learn more about our programs, heres more information.

How can you help?

Buy Local 

Every time you shop you have the opportunity to support your local farmers and ranchers. Browse MALT producers and products here!

Support MALT

MALT has preserved over 55,000 acres of Marin’s productive farmland to date, but there is still another 50,000 acres to go. Donate today to protect at-risk farmland in Marin County, forever.

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Thank you for your support!

P.S. We gathered MALT staff and a graphic recording artist to depict the answers to these crucial questions in a captivating illustrated video. Check it out below! View the final visual here.