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From now to eternity

Foothills Land Conservancy helps farmers and other property- owners prevent development through conservation easements
By Chris Villines 4/30/2012

 

A field of switchgrass grows at Color Wheel Farm in Vonore, where owners Brad and Kim Black invested in the future of the farm by placing a conservation easement with Maryville’s Foothills Land Conservancy, meaning their property will for perpetuity be protected from outside development. The house in the background was built in 1820, the same year the farm was established.
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Sitting at the kitchen table inside the spacious, rustic log home he and wife Kim helped build with their own hands, Brad Black is giving an interesting history lesson about the origins of his family’s Color Wheel Farm in Vonore. A portion of their 980-acre switchgrass, corn, soybean, wheat, canola, and beef cattle operation is visible through the kitchen window.

“Our ancestors, Thomas and Jane Young White, settled here in 1820,” says Brad, whose mother, Betty, nods approvingly as he talks. “They actually settled about three miles up the river a couple of years before, but the river flooded out, so they moved to higher ground, built a house, and established the farm with their nine children. It’s been in our family ever since. When Mama married my father, [the late] Earl ‘Red’ Black, they came up with the name Color Wheel Farm. We’ve made a full circle, White to Black.”

Counting Betty, Brad and Kim’s children, Adam and Amy, and grandchildren Bella, Scarlett, and Jackson, four generations of this Tennessee Century Farm family are gathered around the table (another son, Thomas, lives in Nashville). The adults’ mood grows somber upon mention of the adjoining property, where hundreds of homes and an 18-hole golf course sit on land on which corn and tobacco once thrived.

“The use of that land has changed forever,” says Brad, a director of Foothills Farmers Cooperative. “I still get pretty emotional about it because there will never be another bite of food grown for anybody. We didn’t want that to happen to us.” 

That’s a primary reason the Blacks made the decision last year to place a 410-acre portion of the farm under a conservation easement through Maryville-based Foothills Land Conservancy, assuring that the land will forever be preserved as a working farm, free from commercial development. Some 340 acres of the easement are currently being utilized for cattle and cropland, with 70 acres remaining in woodlands. The property includes pastures, creeks, and streams that support a diverse mix of wildlife such as deer, turkeys, squirrels, raccoons, and the occasional black bear.

“To Brad and me, this farm is like our baby, and we wanted to make sure it was taken care of when we’re gone,” says Kim. “It weighed on us heavily to think almost 200 years of history might end because we didn’t do something right. The average farmer who has any amount of land at all can’t afford to leave 500 acres to someone anymore because of the inheritance tax. You’re going to have to sell off a big chunk of it just to make the numbers work. That was part of our motivation to do a conservation easement, to make it more affordable to pass on. It was a big relief when we finally signed those papers.”

To prepare an easement, conservancy representatives meet with the landowners to determine their wishes and make an on-site visit to the property.  The Foothills Land Conservancy’s board of directors must pre-approve the plans, and then a formal agreement is drafted as well as a report that highlights the property’s conservation values.  Once the easement has been agreed upon by both parties, the project must go back before the board for final approval.

“Under the terms of a conservation easement with Foothills, and all land trusts that I know of, the landowner is asked to give a stewardship donation,” explains Bill Clabough, executive director of Foothills Land Conservancy, established in 1985 as a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) corporation. “At Foothills, that starts at $5,000 but varies on a sliding scale when factoring in a variety of considerations like acreage.  This amount is considered a charitable contribution.  There is also some expense that we pass along to that property owner as it relates to what it costs us to do the easement.”

Bill says there is a common misconception he must correct when first sitting down with an interested landowner.

“One of the biggest obstacles is that most people think they can’t do anything on their land once they sign an easement,” he says. “That’s simply not the case. As long as it’s in the easement contract, you can do pretty much what you want to do on the farm, such as cut trees and dig ponds. A working farm can stay a working farm.”

To date, Foothills Land Conservancy, with a mission to “protect, preserve, and enhance the natural landscape of the East Tennessee region,” has secured 93 conservation easements, preserving more than 30,000 acres in 18 Tennessee counties throughout East Tennessee and the Cumberland Plateau. In 2011 alone, the organization partnered with landowners on 19 protection projects covering 4,400 acres, including the Blacks’ Color Wheel Farm and another Century Farm, John and June Thompson’s 195-acre beef and hay farm in Philadelphia.

“There are so many houses and mobile homes around us where farms used to be, and I just couldn’t bear to think about this farm looking like that,” says June, a self-described “tomboy” who grew up helping her father, the late Horris Ragon, around their tobacco, hay, and cattle operation that’s been in their family since 1824. “We don’t have any children, and our nieces and nephews aren’t involved in farming, so we wanted to take steps on our own to see that this place stays the way it’s always been. I would tell anybody that if it really means a lot for them to keep their farm as a farm, then, for heaven’s sake, do a conservation easement. It’s really not hard; you just have to have the desire to do it.”

John, a past director and current member of Foothills Farmers Cooperative, says the “peace of mind” he and June now have as a result of the easement made the time and expense well worth the effort.

“On just about any day around the farm you can see deer and turkeys, and we have a couple of ponds where Canadian geese and ducks pair off, raising their young,” he says. “The more we thought about it, the more we thought that an easement was the way to go, and the Foothills Conservancy folks have been great to work with. It’s a good feeling to know that this land will always be limited to a farm or maybe a park or game preserve. We just want the natural beauty of this place to stay the way it is.”

Gail Harris of Rockford shares similar sentiments when talking about her reasons for placing a conservation easement in 2009 on the 318-acre dairy, row crop, and beef cattle farm she and her late husband, Jim, worked until his death in 2007. The farm, which she now leases to other producers, also boasts a cave, an old tobacco barn, wildflowers, and meandering streams. The couple had placed an easement on another 105-acre property they owned in 2002.

“When Jim was still living, we were seeing development taking over and farms disappearing,” says Gail. “There was a sense of injustice that someone with a lot of money could come in and totally change the landscape without any regard for the needs of future generations. We never wanted that to happen to this farm.”

Pioneers of sorts, Gail and Jim began blazing a trail for land preservation back in the mid-1970s, when they helped form Alternatives for Blount County — which later disbanded and became Foothills Land Conservancy — with other area landowners out of concern over the prospects of a 1,200-acre theme park in nearby Townsend.

“The people who developed Disney World were behind the project, which they called Smoky World,” explains Gail. “It was going to be this mammoth attraction with huge Ferris wheels, condos, and hundred-acre parking lots. It just seemed utterly ridiculous to us in terms of what it would do to the mountains and the river. That’s what got everything started.”

Smoky World never came to fruition, but the vision Gail and Jim had for their farm is taking place now. And as for the future, Gail has stipulated in her easement that when she passes away, Foothills Land Conservancy will take ownership of the farm to use as an educational facility and possible headquarters.

“I get kind of passionate about this at times because if we don’t start educating people and thinking ahead to the future, there won’t be any land to grow any food, not to mention all of the other life species that we are driving to extinction,” she says. “I think there is no greater legacy that a person can leave than to protect land, because that is the one commodity that you can’t  re-create. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. I feel very fortunate that I had land that I could take steps to protect.”

About 15 miles from Gail in a rapidly growing area of West Knoxville, Christine Hayworth has also taken measures to ensure that her 130-acre developer’s dream, Penrose Farm, will never succumb to urban sprawl. With subdivisions on all sides and contractors knocking at her door, Christine worked with Foothills Land Conservancy to place her horse farm, one of the premier equestrian centers in the Knoxville area, into a conservation easement in 2007.

“We bought this farm in 1961, and since then many, many years of hard work have gone into keeping this property going to make a difference in people’s lives, whether they’re working here or riding here,” says Christine, whose husband, psychiatrist Dr. Ray Hayworth, died 10 years ago. “I didn’t want to see it turned into just another piece of land with a lot of houses on it. I thought, ‘This is the nicest piece of property in West Knoxville, so why not keep it?’ It was a personal choice … you do what you can to make the world a better place.”

Having grown up in Pennsylvania, where she lived until the age of 19, Christine was well versed about the importance of land conservation by the time she moved to Tennessee.

“Anybody in Pennsylvania who has property they want to protect has a conservation easement,” she says. “My family’s acreage there is now a public garden, so it’s been instilled in me to work with the land.”

Today, Christine has another ally in helping use her land for its original purpose. In an agreement finalized in July 2010, she gifted a lease to Maryville College’s equestrian team for use of the farm. Christine is a member of the college’s board, and this arrangement allows team members to board their horses at the farm and use the facilities — a 50-stall competition barn, show-jumping ring, and covered arena — as well as cross-country jumps located throughout the property. And, says Kristen Khym, who coaches the team and directs the program’s activities at Penrose Farm, the agreement will allow for the farm to host “sizeable college and interscholastic shows.”

Christine says she hopes that these students not only become educated on the finer points of horsemanship but also gain an appreciation for protecting and preserving land for future generations as they ride across the wide-open spaces and enjoy picturesque views of the Great Smoky Mountains.

“It’s vitally important for landowners, and in particular farmers, to know about the potential that exists with placing land in a conservation easement,” she says. “Many lose their land when they die because their heirs can’t afford to maintain it or even run whatever business was on it. It’s criminal to me that people can lose their land, which is why I’ve sent so many people to Bill [Clabough] with the hopes that they would use the Foothills Land Conservancy.

“It requires a financial commitment, but nothing worth doing in life is free. And the resulting peace of mind lasts forever.”

For more information on land conservation programs available through Foothills Land Conservancy, visit the organization’s website at www.foothillsland.org, e-mail info@foothillsland.org or call 865-681-8326. The organization welcomes donations by individuals, corporations, or small businesses.

 
 
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