Farmer Juggles Conserving Land with Agritourism Venture

6/1/2013 7:00 AM
By Jennifer Merritt Virginia Correspondent

VINTON, Va. — Rain couldn’t hide the view from the Braeloch Center on Glenburn Farm. It’s a view owner Al Hammond believes is worth preserving and one of the reasons the farm played host to the Agritourism-in-a-Creative-Economy workshop on Wednesday, May 8.

Co-sponsored by Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tourism and the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services or VDACS, the workshop brought together producers, farmers market managers and local government officials and included those already engaged in agritourism as well as those just starting out. Workshop discussions encompassed liability issues for agritourism, marketing and legal considerations.

Although agritourism workshops are regularly held across the commonwealth, this was the first time the workshop included a discussion of land conservation and how it fits with agritourism.

“In this community, that is a question that needs to be answered,” said Martha Walker, community viability specialist for Virginia Cooperative Extension.

Glenburn Farm is a clear example of agritourism and land conservancy working hand in hand. Hammond, a third-generation printer and farmer placed over 300 acres of his 360-acre farm under conservation easements. The farm, which covers parts of Roanoke and Bedford counties, borders the Roanoke River and is visible from the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s protected by three conservation easements, one with the Virginia Outdoors Federation and two with the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy, formerly the Western Virginia Land Trust.

Despite the easements or perhaps because of them, Hammond and his wife, Nancy, run a thriving wedding business on the farm. In addition to being fully booked for the 2013 season, they host numerous corporate and group events at the 12,000- square-foot Braeloch Center. They have plans to expand, building a 9,000-square-foot venue to host plays and music events along the Roanoke River.

Agritourism and working farms haven’t always been seen as a good fit for traditional conservation easements. Kevin Schmidt of the VDACS Office of Farmland Preservation, told workshop attendees about the 2010 Virginia Land Conservation Conference and Gov. Bob McDonnell’s goal to increase the number of working farms participating in easements.

“We worked with all partners at the table to make working farmland and forest land part of the goal,” Schmidt said.

As a result of efforts by the Virginia Farm Bureau and the Virginia Agribusiness Council, a change to the Open Space Lands Act clearly recognizes “agricultural and forestal production,” and the working lands variant includes a “farmstead area” as one of its main concepts. Part of the current goal is to present farmers with accurate information about the limits and advantages to placing parts of their land under conservation easements.

“We want to see land maintained in a rural agricultural state. We provide a voluntary means to do that,” said Dave Perry of the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy. “We don’t take your land. You can leave it to your children or lose it in a poker game. You just give up the right to do what you didn’t want to do anyway.”

Conservation easements can be large or small, although the smaller the easement the more conservation value it has to have. The agreement, called a Deed of Easement, is filed at the courthouse and explains how the land can be used in the future.

“The things we try to conserve on the land — water resources, timber resources — are spelled out,” Perry said. “Industrial and commercial activities are limited but you can certainly do agritourism. Most agriculture or rural land uses are compatible with conservation.”

In some cases, the easements, through a federal tax deduction, state tax credits and estate and property tax benefits, can provide money to help support the farm.

“Where do I get the capital for a corn maze?” Perry asked. “All these things can help you keep more money and the state tax credit puts money in your pocket which can be used as seed money for agritourism. Virginia has the absolute best tax credit program in the country.”

Conservation easements are voluntary, but permanent. Just as the deed spells out the resources that need to be protected, it’s important that it also clearly defines what can be done. For Hammond, it’s meant weddings, events and festivals.

Steve Lemon of Martin, Hopkins & Lemon, the Roanoke, Va., law firm that drafted Hammond’s easement, called it a “close custom-tailored job with agritourism in mind.”

“For his easement, we put in a specific definition of agritourism adding weddings, birthday parties and references to a Virginia Cooperative Extension publication saying weddings are agritourism,” Lemon said.

The old easement template doesn’t work for agritourism cautioned Lemon, citing the stipulation that there not be more than 100 people on the farm per day for more than seven days.

“If you’re in the commercial Christmas tree business and it’s two weeks before Christmas, you’re going to hope there are more than 100 people on the farm per day,” said Lemon.

If the farmer knows what he wants to do with his land, the easement can be drafted in a way that accommodates that.

Hammond’s easement, for example, includes plans for an additional building to host live music and other events while still protecting the conservation value of over 80 percent of his farm.

“The view is spectacular. We carefully tailored the easement to protect the view,” said Lemon. “These things are not one-size-fits-all.”

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