State Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement Programs Permanently Protect Over 3.4 Million Acres as of January 2022

American Farmland Trust‘s Farmland Information Center recently released results from its annual survey of state Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement (PACE) programs. Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement programs use public funds to compensate property owners for keeping their land available for agriculture. The findings from the 2022 survey are summarized in “Status of State Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement Programs.” 

As of the start of this calendar year, PACE programs in 30 states have invested more than $5 billion in state funds to acquire nearly 18,500 easements and permanently protect more than 3.4 million acres. Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware, and Massachusetts lead the nation in easements acquired while Colorado, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, and California stood out for acres protected to date (see maps). Key partners, including local governments, USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service and other federal agencies, foundations, and landowners, have spent an additional $3 billion to complete these projects. 

Annual Trends Show Increased Pace of Protection, Lower Acquisition Costs, and Uptick in Local Match 

In 2021, programs reported acquiring 589 easements on approximately 106,700 acres, spending over $183.7 million in state funds and leveraging more than $118 million from other sources to do deals. For the single year, program activity in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Ohio, and New Jersey topped the list for easements acquired. California, Pennsylvania, New York, Colorado, and Maryland lead for acres protected (see tables).  

While annual state spending was down 3%, total funds invested in easement acquisitions grew 8% from 2020 levels. This reflects a nearly 31% rise in funding from non-state sources, as reported by program managers. Local government contributions represented the most significant share of non-state funding, up 70%. The value of landowner donations also more than doubled, while the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program – Agricultural Land Easement component (ACEP-ALE) kicked in an additional 18% of the non-state dollars. ACEP-ALE is a voluntary federal conservation program implemented by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) that protects agricultural land from conversion to non-agricultural uses. ACEP-ALE provides matching funds to eligible entities to acquire conservation easements on farmland and ranch land. 

The number of easements acquired in 2021 decreased from 2020, but the total acreage protected increased by more than 12% year-over-year. Notably, the average easement size increased 28% from 141 acres per easement in 2020 to 181 acres per easement in 2021—also an increase from both the 2018 and 2019 average easement sizes.  

Average cost for acquisition, meanwhile, was at its lowest point in four years. Based on total funds spent, the average cost to protect an acre of farmland or ranchland dropped 3% from $2,926 per acre in 2020 to $2,833 in 2021.  

AFT’s Farmland Information Center has been conducting its annual survey of State PACE programs since 1995. The 2022 State PACE Program Survey collects information about transactions completed in calendar year 2021 and summarizes cumulative data through January 2022. Other nationwide surveys conducted by the Farmland Information Center include a survey of local PACE programs, and of land trusts that protect agricultural land. The data collected through these surveys help AFT track the progress of on-the-ground programs working to save our nation’s farmland.  

For more information on Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easements, visit AFT’s Farmland Information Center website. The FIC is a clearinghouse for information about farmland protection and stewardship and is a public/private partnership between the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and American Farmland Trust.