On a warm, windy day in the Berkshire foothills, Timberly Kutylo waved her arm toward the six rolling acres she and her husband cultivate. "This land could sell for a thousand dollars an acre -- a price we could never afford," she said. "If it wasn't for the land trust, we wouldn't be here at all," she added.
Timberly and Ray Kutylo are not along in having difficulty affording rural land in America. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) figures, the value of U.S. farm land has quadrupled in the past 10 years: The average price of $196 per acre in 1970 jumped to $790 in 1981. Nearly one-third of all farm land in America now is owned by non-farming landlords. In addition, the recent USDA National Agricultural Lands Study found that some 3 million farm acres are lost each year to development.
In other words, the amount of U.S. farm land is shrinking and what is available often is priced so high that only developers, not farmers, can afford to buy it. Thus, for many Americans the prospect of owning a farm, or even a few acres in the country, is a dream growing increasingly dim.
To help preserve their farm land, some states have enacted development-rights legislation that restricts purchases of agricultural land. In Massachusetts, if a farmer is being pressured to sell his land for commercial use, he can apply for a one-time payment from the state to cover the difference between the value of the land as commercial real estate and as agricultural property. In return for the payment, the state then requires that the land remain in agricultural use.
But some observers contend that such well-intended programs are nothing more than a drop in the bucket. And, they say, these programs do not help families such as the Kutylos, who want to gain access to rural land.
What has made a difference to individuals who want to buy rural land are community land trusts. Often starting with just a handful of local residents concerned with the rural nature of their community, the trusts grow into nonprofit, public organizations devoted to the preservation of local agricultural land and the leasing of it to members of historically landless social groups -- blacks, low-income families, and even middle-income individuals who find buying rural property beyond their means.
Currently, there are 30 community land trusts across the country from California to West Virginia to Maine. Eight trusts operate in the New England states alone. Their sizes range anywhere from a handful of members and a few hundred acres to more than 5,000 acres.
Timberly and her husband lease their six acres from the Valley Community Land Turst in the Pioneer Valley near Colrain, Mass. Formed in 1976, the trust owns two tracts of land totaling nearly 200 acres and leases parts of those tracts to three families.
Like other ocmmunity land trusts, the Valley trust maintains two objectives: to make rural land available to middle and low-income people for housing and farming, and to preserve the agricultural nature of the land itself.
The leases are long-term, some as long as 99 years. They also are renewable and inheritable. And while the land remains the property of the trust, any equity the tenant puts into the land, such as crops and buildings, remains the property of the leasee and may be sold.
The Kutylos, for example, own the solar-heated trailer in which they live, as well as the fruit trees they have just put in. They also are entitled to cut wood for their own use form the 50 wooded acres they jointly lease with their two neighbors.
Robert Swann, considered the co-founder of the community land trust movement, started the first one, the Georgia-based New Communities Inc., in 1968. It now is the largest black-owned, single-tract farm in the country. "The purpose of the trust," Swann said, "is not like that of land conservation groups or like communal land ownership. The idea here is a planning concept -- to acquire land and lease it to those people who will use it."
Unlike communal land ownership, the trust is publicly owned and not limited to those individuals actually living on the land. In fact, members may belong to a community land trust for the purpose of donating their land or lending personal funds for its use. The Valley Community Land Trust, for example, has 66 members but only three families currently live on trust land.
The concept of a community land trust is flexible enough to accommodate the various needs of communities. While most trust operate in rural communities, several are being formed in urban areas such as Boston, Detroit and Cincinnati. Their purpose is to acquire inner-city land to offset urban housing cost for trust members.
The 10-month-old, privately financed American Farm Lands Trust is one of the few farm-preservation organizations with a national focus. But executive director Robert Gray said the small community land trust fills a distinct niche in the fight to preserve American farm land. "Eventually all these land battles are fought on an individual, parcel-by-parcel basis," he said. "And the community land trusts are equipped to do that very well," he added. CAPTION: Picture, The USDA says the value of U.S. farm land has quadrupled in the past 10 years. Average jprice per acre is now $790.