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February 24, 2010   Email to Friend 

FARMLAND FOREVER: Program Seeks To Save State's Prime Farmland
By Darryal Ray

"I'm not going to take any of it with me," says Frank Bannister of Talladega County (above). "I've never seen a Brinks truck going to the grave."
Robert Woody could see it coming, creeping like a thick fog over Monte Sano Mountain and down U.S. 431 until it blanketed the lush green valley below with houses, shopping centers and a golf course.

Before he knew it, Huntsville was at his doorstep.

The once-pastoral view from his century-old farmhouse became an unending wall of privacy fences and a billowing sea of rooftops and chimneys. About 800 homes stood less than 30 yards from his front porch.

"When they started building, there was somebody out here every day knocking on his door wanting to buy this place," Hank Holland was saying of his late father-in-law. "One time, I asked him why he didn't sell. He said when he looks out here, he didn't see money -- he saw his grandmother and granddaddy sacrificing to hold onto the land. He felt that if he let it go, he would be betraying them because of the enormous sacrifice they made to hold onto it."

Woody passed away in 2006, but thanks to a sacrifice of another sort, his family will be able to live on -- and farm -- the 322-acre tract one generation after another -- forever.

That's because the Robert Woody Farm is part of 3,500 acres of Alabama farmland enrolled in the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP), a voluntary federal conservation program that strives to save America's prime farmland from commercial development.

By selling the property's development rights to the State of Alabama, Holland and his wife, Phyllis Woody Holland, not only preserved her father's family heritage but helped stem the rapid loss of the state's best farmland. Even more important, they helped ensure that America will have enough farmland to feed a growing population because land enrolled in the program must always remain farmland.

It's a program that the Alabama Farmers Federation feels is vital not only to agriculture, but to all Alabamians. That's why the state's largest farm organization is working this legislative session to guarantee funding for the program's future. "This program not only preserves farms and our ability to feed and clothe our selves, but it also preserves green spaces in fast-growing urban areas," said Federation President Jerry A. Newby. "The very thing that makes places like Pike Road, outside Montgomery or Jones Valley near Huntsville, such desirable places to live are the farms and agricultural heritage that are part of those communities. If we don't preserve these green spaces now, they will be gone forever."

Nationally, America is losing two acres of farmland every minute -- enough to feed more than 16,000 people for a day. Alabama, meanwhile, ranks 10th among states losing the most prime farmland, according to the American Farmland Trust.

Between 1992 and 1997 (the most recent period for which figures are available), Alabama lost 67,400 acres of prime agricultural land to developed uses, a rate of 22,200 acres per year.

When new figures are released by the USDA'S Natural Resources Conservation Service later this summer, the losses will likely be even more staggering due to the housing booms of the last decade.

Administered by the Alabama Department of Agriculture & Industries (ADAI) in cooperation with the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, FRPP was established by the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996 (and reauthorized by the 2002 and 2008 farm bills) as a means to halt non-agricultural encroachment on farmland.

Angela Hurst, who administers the program for the ADAI, says the state only purchases development rights on property that meets the federal criteria. For example, the property must contain soils that are identified either as "prime" or important to the state's commodities and must be 25 percent "open" for either pasture or tillage. Additional preference is given to property that is threatened by residential or commercial developments, includes some sort of historical or Native American archaeological significance or has a stream running through it.

An appraisal determines the land's commercial value per acre, but the landowner typically receives only about half that price since he is selling only the development rights -- not the property. The state contributes 25 percent of purchase cost, NRCS adds another 50 percent and the landowner foregoes 25 percent of the value off the top. It's an agreement that has enabled Alabama to gain $5.3 million in easement value for only a $1.3 million investment, protecting about 3,500 acres from 18 landowners in 11 counties.

"For the investment the state is putting up, the return on that investment is phenomenal," said Hurst, noting that property enrolled in the FRPP is to be kept in farmland ... forever.

Forever. That's what Frank Bannister, a farmer from Talladega County, had in mind when he enrolled 62 acres of his farm in the program.

"Maybe I'm a little selfish. I'd just love for it to stay Bannister Farm," says the 71-year-old farmer who still lives in the farmhouse where he was born.

He's witnessed first-hand the explosive growth of nearby Oxford and watched as neighboring farms were transformed into subdivisions. "If people want to eat, they'd better save some of the land instead of putting it all in houses!" Bannister exclaimed. "When all the good farmland is gone, if they want a hamburger, they won't be able to get it unless they get it from overseas."

Bannister says his two daughters and five grandkids will be able to live on the land and make a good living from the diverse operation which includes cattle, poultry, tractor sales and a deer processing plant. Still, he recognizes that he probably could have left them more financially secure had he simply carved up the land and sold it for home sites.

"My kids may have done a little better if I'd left it to them, paid a bunch of taxes on it and let them put it in houses, but money is not happiness," said Bannister. "I think my kids and grandkids enjoy this farm. We've got a big ol' garden and we raise vegetables and we work together, and that's worth more than money to me. I'm not going to take any of it with me. I've never seen a Brinks truck going to the grave."

That's the way the Hollands figured it, too. With lots adjoining the farm property selling for anywhere from $50,000 to $300,000, the Hollands sacrificed millions of dollars so that they could honor Robert Woody's wish.

"We have been asked why we didn't take our land and break it up into 10-acre lots and sell it," says Phyllis Holland. "Everybody up there thinks we're crazy that we didn't do it, but we're just not interested. We didn't do this for the money."

Forever. That's what Robert Woody wanted.

A month before his death, he asked his son-in-law to take him on a ride across the farm property. Often stopping along the way, he'd point out all the places he'd grown to love, places where his grandparents had once walked and labored.

"He finally pulled over and asked me if I would take over stewardship of the land," Hank Holland said, choking back tears. "That's when I really understood how passionate he was about this place. At that point, I really understood how he felt."

Woody asked that the family's farm always remain intact, never developed into a subdivision and never sold outside the family so that his grandchildren and their generations after them could live there.

The decision to never sell the property outside of the family isn't a requirement of the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, but was added as an extra measure of protection by the Hollands themselves. It was such an important decision that they called a family meeting to discuss it.

"I wanted them to understand that forever meant forever. I wanted to know if they were OK with that ... that it could never be sold to a developer. They were all for it," said Hank Holland, adding that the easement states that the State of Alabama and the United States Department of Agriculture must defend any effort to extinguish the agreement.

"I've walked every square inch of this acreage with my father when I was little .... The land is priceless to me," Phyllis Woody Holland adds. "You couldn't offer any amount to encourage me to sell. I want my children, my grandchildren and my great grandchildren to have it here as the treasure it is forever and ever. People look at us and think we're half crazy for doing this, but I see forever as a good thing."



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