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The LeRay McAllister Fund is saving families and saving land

View of Paradise, Utah from John White's Brooks ranch.
Regan LaFever
Utah Public Radio
View of Paradise, Utah from John White's Brooks ranch.

The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food has been overseeing the LeRay McAllister Working Farm and Ranch Fund since the 2023 Legislative Session. This fund goes hand and hand with conservation easements on agricultural land.

When producers begin to work on a conservation easement agreement, they work with the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s program. The process begins with an application, if approved, they will receive a percentage of their appraised land value. The producer is responsible for paying the other percentage, which is where the Working Farm and Ranch Fund comes in to help cover the costs.

For many farmers and ranchers, entering this agreement means they have a retirement and a way to do what they love.

Jim Bowcutt is the director of the conservation division at the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.

“They can then go in and enter into a conservation easement and effectively get, you know, 75% of the property value, and be able to use that to retire and allow their sons to continue to work the operation, they retain ownership of it, they can go and work the land, however, they want to work it," Bowcutt said.

He said this fund helps everyone win, producers have a retirement, their families can continue their operations, and Utah keeps agricultural land in use and out of development.

“I think a lot of people hear these conservation easements and I think we just give them money. And all they do is just don't build houses, and it's good. But in all reality, we expect them to continue to be good stewards of the land,” Bowcutt said.

John White is a farmer and rancher residing in Paradise, Utah, running his operation called Brooks Ranch. He had a rather shocking way of stumbling into the McAllister Fund.

“I first heard about it when I was in a meeting. And they were showing me a picture of where they were going to put the cash county landfill. And lo and behold, I looked at it and that was my place. I had heard nothing about it. So I got scared. So then I decided I was going to put an easement on my property,” White said.

White said he was excited to take advantage of the available funds because, for many years, the McAllister Fund wasn’t receiving substantial funds from the legislature, if any.

“They didn't have it for a few years, they quit doing it, which kind of amazes me, you know, we can set aside $40 million to study the Great Salt Lake," White said. "But it's like pulling teeth for ‘em to the legislature to donate any money to LeRay McAllister, they might do three, 4 million, well, you know that lakes gonna fill up again. But once the grounds gone, it's gone.”

Bowcutt said he’s seen many producers become emotional about the thought of losing the land and being out of touch with the industry of their passion.

“They love the agricultural community, they love the fact that they were raised there, it could be four or five generations that grew up on that ranch. They don't want to see it in houses any more than we want to see it in houses,” Bowcutt said.

“But I've been farming my whole life. My dream wasn't to see houses on my farm. I worked for it so long. And it's part of me. I want it to stay that way forever,” White said.

White said the LeRay McAllister Working Farm and Ranch Fund made it possible to save his land and have a retirement.

“Once you've owned ground and you've hauled rocks on the ground and you lived it's no longer a commodity that you buy and sell. It's part of your soul," White said.

The funds aren’t just for family farms, but they are also for larger companies, trying to help smaller farms stay afloat.

Ross Kohler is the owner of Canyon View Farms and Heber Valley Artisan Cheese.

“We started Heber Valley artisan cheese, an artisan cheese company that allowed us to kind of provide a niche market that helps support our small dairy farms,” Kohler said.

Kohler said that by creating this company they can make smaller dairy farms more profitable to survive the current dairy economy.

“Essentially make a situation where a farm is viable in an area that's rapidly urbanizing," Kohler said.

Nearly 100,000 acres of critical land have been preserved in Utah, because of the LeRay McAllister working Farm and Ranch Fund.