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Dr. Sigmon’s Preserve
by Jack Beuttell -- December 24th, 2011

Dr. Sigmon's red barn (every farm needs one).

Dr. Sigmon’s red barn (every farm needs one).

re: land conservation, class trips, small farms, and gov’t conservation programs.

About six weeks ago, I went on a field trip for my one-credit Land Conservation in Practice seminar.  Until then, we had learned in class from local land trusts and municipal agencies about the mechanics of easements and other conservation tactics.

But this particular Saturday was the first time we were introduced to someone who works everyday to promote conservation on his own land—not someone else’s.  And if I’ve learned one thing about conservation in the last twelve months, it’s that in order for a solution to work, it has to meet the landowner’s needs and expectations.

John Sigmon’s mother was born just down the road from his farm in Oxford, NC.  He and his wife Linda live on 240 contiguous acres, which host a number of small stream tributaries that finger south into the Tar River and eventually empty into North Carolina’s Pamlico Sound.

In addition to his conservation easement, which is held by the Tar River Land Conservancy, Dr. Sigmon participates voluntarily in three government-sponsored conservation programs: 1) the Forest Stewardship Program (NC Forest Service); 2) the Forest Landbird Legacy Program (NC Wildlife Resources Commission); and 3) the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (USDA Natural Resource Conservation Program).

Dr. Sigmon, a former Nicholas School professor, leases the land to a small-scale tobacco farmer, a heritage-breed sheep farmer, and a hunting club.  But he doesn’t make much money from these arrangements; more so, he just appreciates the satisfaction of being a good neighbor.  As genuine a country soul that Dr. Sigmon may be, he doesn’t live on or from the land by necessity.  And he isn’t bothering with government deals because they’re fun.  As you might expect of a former Nicholas School assistant dean, he does it because he has a strong conservation ethic.

One of his farming neighbors does quite a bit of tractor work for Dr. Sigmon and buys most of the of the conservation rhetoric, but he’s not convinced a conservation easement is the best solution for his two sons, who may take over the family business some day.  Another neighbor has apparently burned through more than one area farm and doesn’t want a damn thing to do with conservation.

So I’m left wondering (again) is our current conservation toolkit sufficient?

The USDA Economic Research Service’s briefing room on farm household economics says, “The median farm operator household consistently incurs a net loss from farming activities.”  To be sure, there are lots of reasons that might explain this, but one safe conclusion is that most farmers don’t have the time or money to think about conservation when they’re worried about putting food on the table.

So what is the solution?  I have a few, perhaps naïve, suggestions.  First, we need to do a better job at educating people on the economic benefits of conservation.  In real estate, which is my background, energy efficiency wasn’t cool until building owners realized that it reduced their expenses.  We need to find clear, easy ways to show landowners that healing the land returns more to them than does exploiting it.

Second, we need to devise creative market-based solutions that incent farmers to preserve and enhance the natural environment.  This is already being done in a lot of ways (e.g., payment for ecosystem services), but not at scale; most programs are regionally or even project-specific.  How can we attract more private investment to land conservation in an institutional format?

Thirdly, we need regulatory reform to create the framework for these market-based solutions.  The agricultural sector is rife with perverse incentives and artificial economics that need to be refigured.  Part of the problem is big agribusiness and its political lobby, but there is also doubt on the effectiveness of the government’s incentive programs.  Dr. Sigmon’s two neighbors either don’t see the value in these nice little government packages, or they simply don’t work that well.

Without some form of change, it seems the doctor and his thoughtfully designed preserve will remain an island.  And what hope is there for a pristine island, surrounded by a rising, patchwork sea of dying farms?



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