Groups in South Dakota are working to ensure the future of farm and ranch land in the state.
A newly formed agricultural land trust will help landowners secure easements on their property to ensure it’s managed how they want it to be managed in the future.
“We’re seeing interest from landowners … especially in areas where there’s development pressure like the Black Hills or Minnehaha County,” said Jodie Anderson, executive director of the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association, the organization that led the development of the state’s first ag-focused land trust.
A nonprofit trust helps purchase easements that limit the use of the use of the land. Conservation easements can help landowners preserve grasslands or ensure the land isn’t divided into smaller parcels for generations. The terms are decided by the landowner.
“We know there’s no organization or entity that exists in South Dakota that has the capacity,” Anderson said.
The 2014 farm bill set up an agricultural land easement program made for working lands. The program requires a third party to join the easement with the landowner and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The land trust needs to provide half of the funding to purchase the easement.
“We had a lot of people call and ask about it. We always ran into that issue with the third party,” said Jeff Vander Wilt, assistant state conservationist with NRCS.
Another group, the Northern Prairies Land Trust has approached NRCS about working with them through the farm bill program. NRCS also offers other easement programs, such as the wetland reserve easement, which doesn’t require a third party.
The latest Census of Agriculture showed how land use is changing in South Dakota. The amount of cropland increased by 107,000 acres between 1997 and the 2017 census, but pastureland saw a decline. South Dakota lost 2.76 million acres of pasture in those 10 years.
With West River towns such as Rapid City expanding closer to ranches, easements offer family operations a way to maintain their property as ag land, Vander Wilt said.
Over the last few years, members of the cattlemen’s association and other groups worked to study the feasibility of a land trust and to learn about how their counterparts run ag land trusts in other states including Texas, Wyoming and Colorado. South Dakota Cattlemen led the organization efforts along with the South Dakota Grassland Coalition, South Dakota Association of Conservation Districts and the Farm Bureau.
Anderson expects it will be at least another year before the ag land trust is ready to enroll landowners. A board was recently selected, and the hiring process for an executive director has begun.
“We felt it important to have a landowner friendly entity in the state that could offer assistance with easements,” Anderson said.
That easement can take on many forms, from preserving wetlands and bird habitat to offering carbon credits.
“The possibilities are endless,” Anderson said, noting that the decisions are up to the landowner, and the land trust won’t be soliciting easement purchases. “We’re going to only work with landowners that come to us.”
The landowner’s conservation goals and any rules that comes with funding for the easement will play a role in how the land is preserved. Easements can be permanent, or set for a certain time.
“We’re going to try to be an advocate for landowners,” Andersons said.