Agriculture, Land Protection

Kathryn Lyddan: An Interview on Farmland Preservation

September 16, 2020

Kathryn Lyddan, who first joined the MALT team in 2019 as our associate director of conservation, and who now serves as our director of conservation, brings a wealth of experience to the team.

Kathryn grew up in the agricultural community of Davis, California, practiced law for ten years, served as the first executive director of the Brentwood Agricultural Land Trust and, most recently, managed the California Department of Conservation’s Division of Land Resource Protection.

Kathryn brings so much expertise and experience to MALT’s team, and we thought we’d help you get to know her too, with a quick interview. Read on!

Why do you want to protect agricultural land?

I began my career by practicing real estate law. During my ten years in private practice, I worked with property owners and local governments to issue tax-exempt bonds that funded parks, schools and other public infrastructure. As I learned more, I became increasingly interested in how local governments can incentivize some kinds of land use and discourage others.

My interest in local land use intersected with my deep commitment to strengthening our sense of place and creating community through food and food production.

In 2003, I had the opportunity to advance these interests at the newly formed Brentwood Agricultural Land Trust, where I served as the executive director for thirteen years. Brentwood is an agricultural community that has grown food for the San Francisco Bay Area since the Gold Rush. In the 1990s the City of Brentwood grew from a small farming community of 7,500 to a suburban community of 52,000 people. Most of the growth occurred on prime farmland, and East Contra Costa exemplifies the conflict between suburban sprawl and the preservation of working agricultural lands.

After my tenure at the land trust, I managed the California Department of Conservation’s Division of Land Resource Protection, the agency charged with protecting agricultural land across the state. Not only does the Division manage most of California’s agricultural conservation easement funding programs but it also manages the Williamson Act, California Farmland Mapping and Monitoring and the state’s relationship with California’s resource conservation districts.

How are the challenges MALT is working to solve similar to those of agricultural communities across California?

MALT is at the vanguard of recognizing that protecting agricultural land from development is only the first step. We cannot just protect the land and think that our work is done. The issues around the future of agriculture are more complex than that.

I’ve noticed three aspects to MALT’s work that resonate with what is happening around the state.

First, MALT has been leader in developing tools that protect not only the land but agricultural production on the land. In Marin County, like many areas of the state, a traditional conservation easement does not protect agricultural land from being taken out of production by estate home development. MALT’s mandatory agricultural use provision insures that agricultural land will remain productive.

Second, MALT understands that we need to invest in ranchers, farmers and the agricultural economy. Supporting a new generation of farmers and good succession planning are critical to the future of farming. Land access and training will be key as we look to the future.

Third, MALT has recognized that all agriculturalists in California will increasingly need to grapple with changes in the environment and water availability. MALT’s Stewardship Assistance Program provides farmers and ranchers with the tools and funding to adopt sustainable management practices and build resiliency to changes in the environment.  

What’s your approach when partnering with landowners interested in protecting their land with a conservation easement?

I always keep in mind that landowners who are considering permanently protecting their property with a MALT easement are often making one of the biggest decisions of their lives — a decision that will impact their own lives, their businesses and their family for generations to come. I always try to remember this. I know if I were in their shoes I’d want guidance, patience and as much time as necessary to talk to my family and do what was best for everyone involved.

What are your favorite foods or products from MALT-protected lands?

I wait all year for Cowgirl Creamery’s St Pat cheese. It’s available only in the spring and is made from milk from cows raised at the Bivalve Dairy on Bianchini Ranch, which has been MALT protected since 2018. I also love that St Pat is wrapped in wild nettles from Paradise Valley Farms in Bolinas, another ranch protected by MALT since 2014.