Dan Curran of Curran Farm in Sabattus protected his farm in 2016, by working with Maine Farmland Trust to place an agricultural conservation easement on the land. Credit: Courtesy of Jenny McNulty

When Bill and Anna Spiller purchased their farm in 1967, trees were starting to grow up in the fields. Without the funds to hire help, the couple worked tirelessly to clear the land and build up the soil.

“We worked our butts off,” Bill Spiller, 78, said.

Since then, the 130-acre farm in Wells has become a fixture of the southern Maine community. Each spring, the Spillers welcome the public onto their land to pick and purchase strawberries, then raspberries, blueberries, pumpkins and apples. Visitors can even dig their own carrots and harvest tomatoes.

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The farm also offers Community Supported Agriculture shares, a system in which local residents pay ahead of time to be supplied with fresh produce each week, and donates regularly to the local food pantry.

But farming isn’t easy, and the developmental pressures in southern Maine are high. In recent years, the Spillers have watched as three neighboring farms have been purchased and replaced by housing developments. In the midst of all the construction, the Spillers grew concerned that one day, their farm might meet the same fate.

“We supply a lot of people with food,” Bill Spiller said. “I’d hate to see it go, for someone to come in here when we’re gone and build up a bunch a houses — after all the work we’ve done.”

To prevent this from happening, the Spillers placed an agricultural conservation easement on the majority of their property in 2016, a legal agreement that assures the land will remain open for farming, regardless of who owns it.

How it works

A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values. This deed restriction lasts in perpetuity, regardless of who the landowner is or how many times the property changes hands.

“It’s up to us [the land trust] to hold the easement forever,” Adam Bishop, farmland protection program director for Maine Farmland Trust, said. “We have the responsibility of making sure that whoever owns the property is adhering to the terms and restrictions of the easement.”

To do this, the land trust creates a relationship with the land owner and monitors the property by visiting it and creating a written report at least every three years, as is required by state law.

And if the landowner is not complying to the terms set forth in the easement, the holder of the easement may take legal action.

“It’s a big deal for a farmer to do this because they lose a lot of rights on their property,” Bill Spiller said. “For their descendants, it’s going to limit what they can do. So people want to be pretty careful and make sure they’re doing the right thing. It’s not an easy process.”

Each easement is unique to the farm it conserves, based on the property’s resources and its perceived future. In drafting the easement, the holder works with the landowner until they come to an agreement. For example, if a property features a pond, the conservation easement drafted for it may address what can and can’t be done with that body of water.

“If you’re going to keep it farmland,” Bill Spiller said. “You have to write an easement that will allow change in the way it’s being farmed. It may go from crops to animals to greenhouses in the coming years.”

A growing trend

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, Maine Farmland Trust — a nonprofit organization that works statewide to ensure farmland is conserved — is busier than ever.

“The pace of farmland protection increases every year,” Bishop said. “It’s definitely increasing in popularity.”

To date, MFT has protected over 60,000 acres of farmland in Maine through the creation of agricultural conservation easements. They now hold easements on land in every single county, and they support farmers through a variety of programs, such as services to assist in farm business planning.

“If we don’t have land to feed ourselves, people are going to go hungry,” Andrew Sevey, owner of Broadcrest Farm in Ripley, said. “We would be totally reliant on food being transported in here from different parts of the country.”

Working with MFT, Sevey placed an agricultural conservation easement on 200 acres of his dairy farm in 2013. He’s the third generation of his family to farm the land, which has been in his family for 80 years. He currently milks 90 cows, producing 600 gallons of milk each day for Oakhurst Dairy, and in the property’s rolling fields, he grows corn silage, hay and haylage to feed his animals. The soil is rich, he said. Some day, someone might grow potatoes there, he imagines, or some other crop.

“The last crop is a crop of houses,” he said, “then it’s ruined forever.”

Keeping farmland affordable

As agricultural conservation easements have become increasingly popular throughout Maine, more land trusts has become involved. In 2012, Kennebec Estuary Land Trust purchased their first agricultural conservation easement, and has since conserved two additional farms, the most recent in 2018.

“The ultimate goal is for the farmer to be able to afford to own it and keep it as farmland,” Kennebec Estuary Land Trust Executive Director Carrie Kinne said. “That’s the beauty of a conservation easement.”

Placing an agricultural conservation easement on a property lowers its monetary value because it removes land’s potential to be divided and developed. To make up for that decrease in value, the easement must be purchased by its holder — a land trust or government agency — or donated by the landowner.

In a purchase situation, land trusts often use private donations from individuals and foundations, as well as federal funds through the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and state funds through the Land for Maine’s Future Program. In rare cases, town governments will also pitch in.

In many cases, the money a farmer receives from selling an agricultural conservation easement allows them to not only continue living on their property, but also invest more in their operation such as by renovating buildings or purchasing more livestock.

Agricultural conservation easements can also make farmland more affordable for future farmers. In fact, some prospective farmers have sold easements to Maine Farmland Trust while purchasing a property so they have more money to put toward the purchase.

“That was something we weren’t entirely anticipating,” Bishop said. “A lot of folks are using this as a tool to help purchase farmland.”

For example, if a farm is selling for $300,000, the buyer may be able to sell an agricultural conservation easement on it for $50,000, effectively reducing the cost of the land to $250,000.

Such was the case for Troy and Brenda White, owners of Lil’ Bit Organic Farm in LaGrange. After leasing hay fields for three years, the couple purchased the fields while simultaneously selling a conservation easement on the property to MFT in 2014.

“We couldn’t afford to do it without it,” Troy White said. “The land came up for sale and we didn’t want to lose the hay ground.”

The Whites raise calves and pigs to sell to farmers. They also have meat chickens, laying hens and horses, which they ride for pleasure. And last year, they started growing vegetables in a high tunnel with ambitions of joining the Community Supported Agriculture community.

“Going into it, I was a little nervous at first because I hadn’t even heard of [Maine Farmland Trust],” Troy White said. “But they’ve been really easy to work with. They come out once a year, check things over, and if we have any questions, we call them up.”

Before it’s too late

For Bill and Anna Spiller, placing an easement on their farm took them about three years. The process included working with their local land trust, Great Works Regional Land Trust, which now holds the easement. Though the land trust could privately fund a portion of the easement cost, they had to seek additional funding from sources including the Natural Resources Conservation Services and the Town of Wells, approved by town vote.

The Spillers also donated a chunk of the cost, which significantly lowered the amount of money the received for the agreement. Determined to protect the land, it was a sacrifice they were willing to make.

“It’s not just for me and my wife,” Bill Spiller explained. “If we don’t preserve a lot of this land now, it’s going to be gone in a few years. The rapid building changes a community. And personally, I don’t know it it’s always for the best. I think I’d rather live in a diverse community of working people, farmers, fishermen and small businesses. It seems we’re going more and more to bedroom type communities.”

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...