Frequently Asked Questions
ASA was formed in 1990 by a small group of local visionary farmers and landowners who realized that if they didn’t conserve productive farmland, it would be lost forever. They saw how farms disappeared to shopping malls and subdivisions in Albany and Clifton Park, and didn’t want to see the same thing happen in Washington and Rensselaer counties. The founders were committed to saving highly productive soils so that agriculture would have a place in our community and local economy for generations to come.
ASA is one of only two land trusts in New York State that focuses exclusively on conserving working lands.
ASA works to ensure a vibrant future for agriculture in the region in two fundamental ways: first, by protecting and stewarding farmland, and second, by actively supporting farm viability efforts. Another goal, related to both of these objectives, is to connect people to the land by hosting educational programs and other events on conserved farms.
At its heart, ASA is a private, community supported non-profit land conservancy that protects valuable farmland and private woodland in Washington and Rensselaer counties. We help landowners arrange conservation easements, which are permanent, legal guarantees that their land will never be developed for nonfarm purposes.
Land protected by an easement can be used for the purposes outlined in the easement. The property can be sold or transferred, but all future owners are bound in perpetuity by the terms of the easement. For a deeper dive into how easements work, click here.
With less than 3% of the Earth’s surface suitable for farming, fertile soil is a precious, limited and finite resource. Millions of acres of farmland already have been destroyed in this country by poorly planned development. In New York State, roughly 5,000 farms have been paved over since the 1980s. Within the Capital District alone, 60 percent of our farmland has been lost just in the past 25 years. We have to act now to protect as much of the remaining productive farmland as possible.
ASA has earned trust across New York State as a capable organization with an accomplished past and a thoughtful plan for the future. We are one of only 398 land trusts (out of a total of 1,700 in the United States) accredited by the national Land Trust Accreditation Commission. With a small staff, numerous volunteers and generous donors, we already have conserved 18,999 acres.
Land use regulations rarely focus on the urgent need to protect farmland. And since land use regulations are determined by local government, protections vary widely from community to community, and rules can be changed every time a new planning board is formed. It’s clear that the voluntary nature of a private contract negotiated between the landowner and ASA is a more practical way to protect vulnerable land.
We were selected by both Washington and Rensselaer counties to operate the Purchase of Development Rights (“PDR”) program, described in the easement section below. More recently, Washington County asked ASA to oversee the update to the county’s Agricultural and Farmland Protection Plan, an indication of ASA’s high standing in the community.
ASA is funded through contributions from individuals, foundations, corporations and the government.ASA has been awarded $16.8 million in funding for projects in Washington and Rensselaer counties. This funding has leveraged an additional $1.7 million in federal grants and $1.7 million in private funding. In 2016, ASA won 10 New York State awards totaling $5.6 million to conserve over 3,500 acres, more awards than any other land trust in New York State. The organization is fiscally sound, with more than $1 million in its easement stewardship and defense fund as well as a special insurance policy to ensure that the terms of our conservation easements can be enforced through litigation if necessary.
One way is by the numbers: We’ve helped 125 farm families to date. Each family that has protected their land has a unique story, and every conserved farm contributes in its own way to the continued vitality of agriculture in our region—either by enabling families to pass the farm on to a younger generation, purchase additional farmland, expand their operation or afford to retire while conserving their land. Success would also be defined by reaching our to protect enough farms and farmland to make sure farming will always be a part of our future. To do that, we will need to conserve a minimum of 50,000 to 60,000 acres.
Regardless of size, location, or type of easement, the unifying characteristic is that protected lands are actively used for agriculture or forestry.
Landowners who have conserved their land must, under the terms of the easements, follow best agricultural and forest management practices, and abide by the conservation plans and forest management plans referenced in their conservation easements. As a land trust, we concentrate on protecting the land base and leave the farming to the experts.
A conservation easement is a voluntary and private legal agreement between a willing landowner and a qualified organization, such as ASA, that permanently protects a property’s agricultural and forestry characteristics. The terms of the easement restrict the type of nonagricultural development that can legally occur on the land. In addition to farming and forestry, home-based businesses and rural enterprises are often permitted on conserved land, as long as they do not interfere with the agricultural and forestry uses of the property.
The landowner still owns and manages the property, and retains the right to sell, lease, gift, or transfer the property. ASA’s agricultural easements are designed to provide flexibility for farming and other compatible uses, recognizing that farming practices will change over time. The right to develop the property outside of those provisions is permanently extinguished. ASA is responsible for ensuring that the purposes of the easement are upheld in perpetuity.
Landowners who have protected their farms must still pay property taxes. Usually, conserved properties are taxed at the same rate as an agricultural use exemption.
Surprisingly, the opposite is true. Developers and many town leaders often encourage residential development because they say it’s good for the tax base, when in fact it actually represents an overall net tax loss for the community. This is largely because residential use creates a demand for more roads, schools, law enforcement and other government services. Residential use ends up costing more in services than it pays in taxes. Farmland, on the other hand, pays more in taxes than it requires in services. Multiple fiscal impact studies done throughout New York State show that farmland costs only $.29 for every $1.00 paid in taxes, while residential land costs $1.27 for every $1.00 paid in taxes (American Farmland Trust). It behooves towns to steer development away from farmland so that it can continue to positively contribute to the tax base.
Conservation easements are permanent and cannot be removed. In fact, when an easement is placed on a property, the development rights are permanently extinguished and cannot be restored except under very limited circumstances such as eminent domain.
PDR is ASA’s acronym for the purchase of development rights from a landowner, using mostly federal or state funds applied for by ASA. The value of those rights is determined by an appraiser certified by New York State. The appraisal uses comparable sales and includes a “before” easement valuation and an “after” easement valuation. The difference between the values is the value of the development rights. Typically, landowners receive anywhere from 60 to 100% of the easement value when selling their development rights.
DDR is ASA’s acronym for donated development rights. There are many reasons why people choose to donate their rights to develop their land, including estate planning and family consensus-building between generations, state and federal income tax deductions, state property tax credits, a desire to leave a legacy to future generations, or simply because they feel it is the right thing to do as stewards of the land. Approximately half of ASA’s easements have been acquired through donations.
For most farmers, their equity is in the land and they cannot afford to donate an easement. Selling development rights provides a capital infusion that enables them to make substantial upgrades, support retirement, or make it feasible to transfer the farm to the next generation.
The conservation easement is part of the deed and runs with the property. When the land is sold, the new owners must abide by the terms of the easement. ASA meets with the new owners each time a conserved property is transferred to review the terms of the easement and help foster good landowner relationships.
ASA is required to ensure that any activity on a protected property is consistent with the terms of the conservation easement. We conduct annual site visits (also known as monitoring visits) on each of our conserved properties to ensure that the agricultural and forestry uses of the property are protected. During these visits, we are able to answer questions landowners may have about their easements and discuss future plans they may have for their property.
We would meet with them to help bring them into compliance. If that is not successful, ASA is obligated to defend and, if necessary, enforce its easements. Largely as a result of careful monitoring and ongoing communication with landowners, we have not yet had to defend or enforce an easement through legal action.
We are covered by a special insurance policy dedicated to defending our easements, and there are funds in reserve to ensure the terms of our easements are upheld in perpetuity. For every easement we acquire, a minimum of $15,650 is set aside in a restricted fund. These monies are used to monitor, defend and, if necessary, enforce the easement. There is currently more than $1 million in this fund, to which we will add to as additional easements are acquired. A portion of the money we raise through our Forever Farmland Campaign will go towards the reserve fund as well.
The spectacular rolling hills and valleys of the Upper Hudson Valley are blessed with many attributes that make this area a unique resource not only for Upstate New York, but also for the greater Northeast. These attributes include:
- Excellent farmland that is still very affordable. It costs nearly four times as much to conserve an acre of farmland in counties south of Rensselaer as it does to conserve an acre of farmland here.
- Plentiful, clean water.
- A robust agribusiness sector that includes farm equipment distributorships, as well as feed and fertilizer suppliers, financial services agencies that specialize in farms, and veterinary service providers.
- Over 200 years of shared agricultural experience and expertise within our farming communities.
- Multiple successful startup ventures in vegetable farming, grass-fed livestock, vineyards and farm breweries, and an increased interest in grain farming.
- Access to over 60 million consumers – the largest consumer food market in the United States – who live within 5 hours of the region.
- Thriving farmers’ markets and CSAs.
Agriculture is a key component of our economy, generating over $200 million in revenue every year, and providing hundreds of jobs in these two counties.
Pockets around Glens Falls, Troy and I-90 have experienced increased development pressure, but the biggest threat to farmland in Washington and Rensselaer counties comes from the Capital District, especially from Saratoga County. Thanks in part to Globalfoundries, the semiconductor factory campus, Saratoga is the fastest growing county in the state, and many residents are relocating to Washington County because of sky-rocketing housing costs closer to the campus. While ASA supports economic development and job creation, we believe strongly that development should not take place on good farmland.
Yes. According to USDA Agricultural Census data from 2002-2012, Washington County suffered a loss of nearly 17,000 acres of productive farmland in that period. Rensselaer County suffered an 11% loss in the number of farms in active production and 3,600 acres of farmland. Given the expected growth in the Capital District Region, the pressure to convert open agricultural land into residential housing is expected to increase.
When new housing encroaches on working farms, there are other concerns besides the loss of cropland. It raises the potential for conflicts between farmers and non-farming neighbors and increases property values, which results in higher taxes. Farming is already a low-margin business, and new taxes on top of the uncertainty of commodity prices adds even more pressure on farmers.
In some areas around Troy and southern Rensselaer County, it costs as much as $3,500 per acre. On average, though, it costs about $1,500 to conserve an acre of land in Washington and Northern Rensselaer counties.
ASA joined with the American Farmland Trust and 13 other organizations up and down the entire Hudson River Valley to form the Hudson Valley Farmlink Network. The goal of the new organization is to serve as a resource for beginning farmers as well as anyone looking to transfer their land to the next generation. Each member organization works to provide programs and outreach to the farming community. The networks Farmland Finder website details where farmers can look for land to purchase, lease or manage, and landowners can list farms that they want to sell or lease. ASA has made several successful matches as a result of these efforts and hosts a variety of programs, such as a “Come Farm with Us” bus tour for farm-seekers. Find events like this on our Events page.
For now, yes. Thanks to a major gift of real estate, ASA was able to establish an Operating Reserve Fund of $250,000 in 2013 for the first time in its history. We also established a Development and Opportunity Fund in the amount of $150,000 in 2016 for the purpose of ensuring our continued ability to fundraise effectively. And we have established a Forever Farmland Fund, a capital campaign seeking $1.9 million in private funding to conserve another 8,400 acres in five years.
The majority of ASA’s funding comes from the following:
31.6% government grants, mostly for the purchase of development rights from landowners
36.3% individual contributions, business support and fundraising events
24.8% grants from private foundations
This video, created by the Community Foundation of the Greater Capital Region, highlights ASA as one of the nonprofits that have benefited from their support: https://vimeo.com/196011419
We will continue our outreach to our annual donor roll, which now tops 650 families, and are further supported by thousands of people who participate in our events and programs every year. We are also accelerating our efforts to seek major gifts and planned giving opportunities.
Only 14.4% of our expenses go towards management and fundraising. That’s far below the national average for similar organizations largely because ASA does not pay any administrative overhead (typically 25 to 40%) to a national or state office.
Yes. Relinquishing development rights has a monetary value. The sale of these rights is paid for by state or federal funds earmarked for this purpose, as well as by donations and grants.