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A Small Farm Gets a New Owner in a Land Preservation Deal

By Kaomi Lee

The inside 50-year old Kue Lor's house is like a photo gallery of survival and family, one that spans the timeframe of his life as a farmer in Laos, to the refugee camps in Thailand, to the present moment with his wife Bao and their nine children in Saint Paul.

"I [was] born in Laos, we're Hmong," Lor said in English.

He has been working the land for as long as he can remember, as did his parents.

"Farming's in my blood, and my life," he adds.

When Lor arrived in the U.S. 30 years ago, he had hoped to continue to farm. But as a refugee without family ties to property, he quickly learned he would have to do it by renting farmland. Minnesota's high land prices were out of reach.  

"It's always been a dream of mine to own a piece of land," Lor said, switching to Hmong. "But because of finances, I couldn't do it myself, so I never considered it."

Instead, he and his family had to rent, working long hours over soil they didn't own. They had to rent parcels at different locations, moving - sometimes immediately - whenever a landlord sold the land. They'd even have to leave behind crops still in the ground. Sometimes, local police would suspect them of wrongdoing. Their round-the-clock work schedules sometimes required the family to work into the night using flashlights.

That scrutiny by law enforcement while at work is something that farmer Lynne Reeck, who is white, has not had to experience. For nearly three decades, she's run a successful goat dairy farm on 25 acres in Nerstrand, Minn. The farm is secluded and set back from any main roads.

"I have lived here for 26 years now, it's been a long time," Reeck said, sitting next to the warmth of her woodstove inside her farmhouse. "My love for this place has just grown," she smiled.

But at 68, she could no longer do the hard demands of the job. In her heart, it was time for her lovely farm to be tended by another farmer, even though few people wanted to get into the dairy business. And the mix of rolling hills and flatlands meant it didn't work as conventional cropland.

"I've laid awake many a night, trying to figure out what could happen. I've wondered if [I could sell it] before I go bankrupt," she said.

Non-profit American Farmland Trust wanted to help. They told Reeck they could pay her the fair market value of the land of $385,000, if she would agree to a farmland easement. That restricts the land use to farming, permanently.

"The valuation of the property falls, because that decreases what you can do with the land. You can't turn it into a housing development for 40 people anymore," she said.

The new value of $230,000 is more affordable, making it within reach for an immigrant farmer like Kue Lor. The difference in price ends up being the cost  of the easement that is paid back to trust. In this case, farmland advocates, non-profits and even Reeck's customers all pitched in to pay for the easement.

Non-profit Renewing The Countryside  advocates for local farm economies. It helped broker the deal.

'It's exciting for these two families, " Jan Joannides, executive director of the organization, said. "But also it's a new model for what we can put in place in Minnesota, to be able to help more beginning and emerging farmers get on land."

But she and others say scaling up a more widespread program for agriculture easements with just philanthropy is not realistic. Development pressures have been present for years, especially in the Twin Cities metropolitan region. Twenty years ago, voters in Dakota County decided to raise their taxes to raise $20 million for a fund for conservation and farmland easements.

The county is two-thirds rural and one-third urban. Lisa West, senior project manager for the county, pointed out that most of the voters are concentrated in the northern-most and urban areas. The money was designed to be spent 10 years after the program's creation. More than 11,000 acres have so far been protected, West said. Nearly 8,000 of that is farmland.

The program is not accepting more applications, though there are special cases that do prompt consideration. Dakota is the only county in the state that has its own easement program. The state Department of Agriculture has farmland preservation programs, including an eight-year (expirable) farmland covenant program. But at a recent state Senate hearing, the programs faced some pointed questions from legislators about their efficacy. While the state has so far not offered a statewide easement program, Dakota County's Lisa West said it does have a blueprint.

"The county's plan was the basis for state agriculture protection (easement) plan. That allowed for us to apply and receive federal plans to assist and protect farmland. The state has not implemented in their program," she said.

The state has lost a million acres of farmland since 1987, and 20,000 fewer farms dot the landscape. State agriculture officials said that, overall, the loss is not a crisis level. But the state programs may have lost some steam. For example, only three counties - Winona, Waseca and Wright - are participating in the agriculture covenant program for outside the metro area. Some point to the program's lack of flexibility, such as not allowing farmers to partially use the land for solar; others say the tax credits offered to incentivize farmers have not risen with inflation since the program's inception in the 1980s.

For Lynne Reeck, her time on the farm has come to a bittersweet end. Last month, she completed her sale to the American Farmland Trust. The last of her commercial dairy equipment has been sold, and her two remaining goats have gone to a farm to retire and graze in peace. Knowing that the Lors will carry on with the farm, Reeck said it's a little easier to let go.

"It's very heartwarming and gives me joy. I'm very happy they'll be able to live here and enjoy this place. The peace and quiet and the beauty that they'll enjoy here will be a solace for them," she said.

The Lors say they will be one of only two Hmong families in the state that they know of who will own their own farm land. Lor's wife, Bao Xiong, said the farm won't just be theirs.

"[It belongs] to the whole community," she said in Hmong. "The fresh produce will be grown for the community," she added.

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