Chico-based organization conserves agricultural land
Twelve miles outside of Chico, a wide gravel road parts a canopy of trees over which an arch reads “Llano Seco Rancho” in gold letters.
The ranch is a nature haven—a place of oak woodlands, wetlands, native grasslands and riparian forests. It has raised cattle, farmed walnuts, almonds, corn, wheat and beans, to name a few crops. It is the place where Dave Sieperda, ranch manager, is raising his kids; a place where his son and daughter can ride horses and experience wildlife.
And thanks to organizations like the Northern California Regional Land Trust, this 18,000-acre property is a place protected from the winds of change.
“Every day we [lose] valuable, important agricultural land to pavement,” said Sieperda, who has worked for five years at the private ranch and witnessed first-hand the benefits of conservation.
Nearly all of Llano Seco Rancho is protected from development through easements granted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Nature Conservancy and, most recently, NCRLT.
A conservation easement is a contract in which landowners agree to give up development rights in return for money and/or tax breaks. Such easements last indefinitely, which tends to make them hard for land trusts to secure.
“Historically, there has been apprehension on the part of the agricultural community in working with a land trust,” said Jamison Watts, executive director of the NCRLT. “The whole in-perpetuity concept makes people feel uncomfortable.”
So uncomfortable, in fact, that despite being in operation for 18 years, and focusing almost exclusively on easements for the past eight years, NCRLT has only managed to secure one agricultural easement, granted to about 4,000 acres of Llano Seco in 2006. Meanwhile, 14 other easements have been granted for protection of existing wildland.
During a recent visit to Llano Seco, the 40-year-old Sieperda described the ranch as a place whose rich landscapes needed protection. Sitting in the ranch’s office with a squirming, squeaking little yellow Labrador retriever, Drake, in his arms, Sieperda spoke of the land’s ecological value and history.
The ranch came into existence in 1845, when Pio Pico, the last governor of Mexican Alta California, issued a land grant. From there, it changed hands many times, and at one point was even traded for 15 cows. It came into the hands of the Parrott family in 1861, where it has since remained. Sieperda manages the ranch for owner Richard Thieriot, who lives in San Francisco.
Despite the family’s commitment to conservation, Sieperda understands the hesitation other farmers feel about easements.
“I don’t think many people want to give up that potential of using their land later,” said Sieperda. “[And] easements aren’t understood.”
Ambiguity has been one of the major barriers faced by NCRLT. But the three-person operation, backed by a board of directors, is working to better explain its mission.
Founded in 1990 under the name Parks and Preserve Foundation, the nonprofit originally focused on conserving wildlands in Butte County. In 2000, the organization changed its name to the Northern California Regional Land Trust and expanded its interests and capabilities to include agricultural land in Tehama and Glenn counties in addition to Butte County.
In the past year, NCRLT has gotten the attention of some farmers through outreach programs. With funding provided by the California Farmland Conservancy Program, the organization has distributed information and attended community events, coffee talks and Rotary meetings, surpassing a goal of reaching 450 farmers.
As a result, it has taken in 15 applications for agricultural easements in the past year.
“I find myself working … for an organization committed to the conservation and protection of the very agricultural and natural treasures that shaped me in my youth,” said the 38-year-old Watts.
Jesika Jennings, NCRLT’s director of development, shares the sentiment. She grew up in the North State, so she’s well aware of Chico’s connection to local growers—"We are very lucky to go out on Saturday morning and get our food from the farmer’s market,” Jennings said. She also has grown accustomed to the region’s many natural attributes, from wildland to swimming holes.
As Watts pointed out, pro-tecting agricultural land from being paved over does more than preserve a culture and landscape.
These days, 2 million farms exist in America. But less than 30 percent of those will pass onto the next generation, Watts said, and less than 10 percent of those will pass onto a third generation in the next 50 to 60 years. NCRLT’s goal, then, is protecting these farms.
“I believe that agriculture is a part of our American heritage,” Watts said. “We would be losing a big part of who we are if we were to lose agriculture.”
In an age of global food shortages, the organization’s work is increasingly important. A decline in domestic agriculture would result in an increase in imported food and produce. Along with the rise in cost, there well could be a decrease in food quality.
By 2040, Watts said, it’s estimated that 2 million more people will be living in the North State. Since farmland is generally found on flatland regions near water, it is the most desirable—and affordable—place to build homes. “We are advocating that we take a real hard look at our agricultural resources in our region and do our best as a community to protect ag land.”
While easements are not the only way to protect ag land and wildlands, it is one very effective way, Watts said. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. First of all, to be considered for an agricultural easement, farms must meet several qualifications related to soil type, crop type and property size. The land also must have held crops within the past four years.
Application, evaluation and screening processes take about one to two years. The plan must be approved by county government, and then NCRLT must secure funding from a third party. Funding ranges from thousands to potentially millions of dollars, given to farmers in exchange for their development rights.
Farm owners can determine the terms of the contract; however, more restrictive easements yield more cash than those less restrictive.
“You make the call as far as freedoms,” Sieperda said. “Price per acre is adjusted accordingly.”
There are no restrictions on the amount of money farmers can receive through an easement. It is purely a real estate transaction, and they can do with the money what they wish. In the case of Llano Seco Rancho, the NCRLT easement amounted to $6.5 million. Other benefits include property-, income- and estate-tax breaks.
While the projections about population growth and the impact on agricultural lands describe conditions that are decades away, NCRLT conservationists maintain that time is of the essence when it comes to protecting these resources.
“Two or three generations from now, if a concerted effort isn’t made, something could happen,” Watts said. “Our agricultural base could be lost.”