Dairy Farmer/Teacher Sees Value in Easement

Pam Allen’s dairy farm is perched on what she calls “one of the most spectacular pieces of land in the state of Wisconsin.”

She wanted to make sure that beautiful stretch of land in Dane County’s Black Earth Valley was protected from being converted to another use, so she sold development rights on the farm in an agreement spearheaded by American Farmland Trust. With new tools offered by Wisconsin’s Working Lands Initiative, she hopes some of her neighbors will make similar decisions.

“There’s a lot of pressure to build in the valley proper because it’s level and flat and close to Madison. It has been a tough go to keep the development from just swallowing me up,” she says. Her efforts have been worthwhile. Black Earth Valley’s Plano silt loam is a top soil type in Wisconsin.

Agriculture is definitely in Pam Allen’s blood. In addition to managing the 45-cow dairy herd and 100-acre spread, she’s the agriculture teacher and FFA advisor at nearby Mount Horeb High School. She is a strong voice for the need to provide new and beginning farmers with opportunities to succeed. She raised her children on the farm and now is happy her grandkids will have “a place to raise animals and have a garden and help grandma with baling hay and some of those activities that make young people strong.”

She took a big step in that direction in 2002, entering into the easement with AFT, the state of Wisconsin and Dane County. “From now until forever, it will stay in open agriculture land. I think that was a good move for my family, and I think that will not only preserve the land but also help my heirs to settle any kind of disputes about what should be done with the land in the future. I made it pretty restrictive on purpose. More than the money to me, I just don’t want that valley developed,” she says.

The state and county joined AFT in the transaction because they recognized the area was not only great farmland, but also significant for its environmental and cultural attributes.

She believes the farm will retain its value over time, too. “There are a lot of people who are interested in purchasing green space in this area, enough so that you won’t take that big of a hit if you did sell. If you are in an area where development rights are desirable, the market, no matter what the statewide average is, will still reward you because people will pay a premium for green space.”

Allen has fielded several inquiries, but hasn’t let go of the farm. She’s an advocate for protecting the best farmland across the state. “We need to have an organized approach to using the land in this country, or in 150 years from now, we will have nothing. It just makes sense to preserve our best.”

Advice for landowners: “One point I’d like to make – I have a really strong attachment to the land and all of that – but it’s a business decision as well. It will generate cash flow and keep the enterprise going.

“You have to make sure your bank is on board. If you have a mortgage or think you might take out a mortgage for a young family member in the future, it could be an issue for some people if they owe a bunch of money. You need to be in an equity position and need to be working with someone who knows it’s a good thing. My banker did.”

For those who need to generate cash, she says an easement can help. “You will come out a lot more ahead with this. You don’t have to worry about driveways and surveys and all those expensive things involved with selling lots,” she says.”Selling development rights is a solid investment in estate planning. I’ve seen so many families torn apart. This is a way you can solve a lot of present and future angst for landowners. I see a lot of pluses.”