(The Tennessean- Nashville) The disappearance last year of a tax incentive for farm preservation could accelerate the disappearance of farmland in Tennessee and around the nation.
That worries Kenneth and Sandra Bracy, who fret every time they see a new subdivision sprout near their home on the Kentucky border. New roads that slash through prime farmland aren't reassuring either.
They don't want that to happen to land they have worked for the past four decades.
So back in December, the couple donated conservation easements on more than 500 acres to the Land Trust of Tennessee. The land, where the Bracys grow corn, soybeans and winter wheat, will now get permanent protection. They persuaded a neighboring farm in northern Robertson County to give to the nonprofit, too.
"We've got to have farmland to raise food to eat," Kenneth Bracy said. "Passing it on to the Land Trust, we'll pass it on to our children and our grandchildren. I just think it is a win-win for everybody."
But persuading other farmers to do the same got more difficult this year. Tax incentives that made the donations financially feasible for many farmers expired at the end of 2013. Congress has yet to extend them or make them permanent.
"If you have a farm and want to make money, you sell the farm. In most cases, you sell to a developer. That is where the money is," said Russ Shay, director of public policy for the Land Trust Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based group that lobbies on conservation issues.
Most farmers need an incentive to donate the development rights on their land, Shay said. "That is their savings bank."
But with the incentives expired, groups such as the Land Trust for Tennessee are in a tough position, he said.
The new $1 trillion 2014 Farm Bill, passed by the House of Representatives this week, is considered a win by some conservationists. It includes more than $1 billionfor conservation over the next 10 years. It could go before the Senate on Monday.
That's great, Shay said, but the money for buying easements only goes so far.
"We believe much more is being done through donations, actually, on a per-acre basis," he said Friday. "Buying will always be limited. Could we spend twice as much money as they have made available in the farm bill? Yes, we could."
But Shay said the incentives make a difference.
"Conservationists are stuck in a position where they can't market these or discuss them with farmers," Shay said.
A changing landscape
Farmland around the nation is disappearing. Farms are getting smaller. The landscape across rural America — and throughout Middle Tennessee — is changing.
Conservation easements are the Land Trust of Tennessee's go-to tool. Since 1999, the trust has helped protect more than 91,000 acres of farmland, forest and other land in Tennessee, with the vast majority coming through the donation of conservation easements.
"Our big niche in the state is farmland conservation," said Emily Parish, the Land Trust of Tennessee's assistant director of conservation programs.
"We want to increase our capacity working with farmers."
In the past year alone, the trust secured more than two dozen easements statewide. In Middle Tennessee, the acquisitions totaled more than 1,800 acres — including three Williamson County farms.
As with lots of things with Congress, the conservation tax incentives came about in an indirect way. They aren't in the farm bill and weren't put in place with stand-alone legislation.
Rather, the enhanced incentives were part of the 2006 Pension Protection Act, a bill that established new funding requirements for certain retirement plans.
The incentives raised the tax deductions people can take for donating easements — from 30 percent of their adjusted gross income in any year to 50 percent. If a donor qualified as a farmer or rancher, then up to 100 percent of his income could be deducted.
The Conservation Easement Incentive Act, introduced last summer by Rep. Jim Gerlach, R-Pa., would make the incentives permanent. Despite having more than 170 co-sponsors and widespread bipartisan support, the bill remains stuck in committee.
Republican Reps. Marsha Blackburn, R-Brentwood, and Diane Black, R-Gallatin, are among those who have signed on.
"This legislation respects the rights of private property owners while promoting land conservation and green spaces across America," Blackburn said in a statement.
"Most importantly we are able to accomplish this goal through incentives instead of penalties."
Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, has been a strong backer of conservation but has not signed onto the legislation because it does not have a funding source.
"These conservation efforts are important to protecting Tennessee's unique beauty, and we should find a way to pay for them," he said.
Affordable for the next generation
Alfred and Carney Farris donated land, too.
The couple helped farm for years in Dickson County, but when his father died, the farm was sold for development. The Farrises then purchased land in Robertson County, where they raise heritage cattle and grow organic grains.
In 2007, the Farrises donated more than 200 acres on their Windy Acres Farms to the Land Trust of Tennessee.
Alfred Farris, 83, was in Uganda on a farming project. But Carney Farris, 81, said the easements help keep farmland affordable for the next generation.
"You can't make new farmland," she said by telephone.
"We have younger people that really want to farm and they cannot afford to do so. From that perspective, they can't go and pay big prices for land and then start in farming."
For Kenneth, 62, and Sandra Bracy, 60, the drive from Springfield along State Line Road to their home meant seeing new home after new home.
"It has been so sad," she said. "How many farms have been sold?"
They wanted to do their part. They gave a tour of their farm recently. Vast vistas of fertile land. Their dog Riley running ahead. An old cemetery on their neighbor's farm that dates back to at least the 19th century.
It's all protected now.
Reach Duane W. Gang at 615-726-5982 and on Twitter @duanegang.