Gov. Jack Markell's proposed 2014 budget slashes farmland preservation funding by nearly 80 percent, but state agriculture officials say as many as 15 properties could still be placed in the program this year.
Delaware Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary Austin Short said in past years when funding was low, surplus money was later used to restore funding to the program, which also receives federal and county funding.
Delaware Agricultural Lands Preservation Program, established in 1991, received $10 million last year. Of that, $7 million was used for farmland preservation, while $3 million was used to start the Young Farmers program, aimed at encouraging younger farmers to purchase land.
As it stands, $2 million has been budgeted for farmland preservation next year. About $600,000 of that will go to the Young Farmers program, which assisted 10 farmers in the first round and could fund five more farmers in the second round.
In the past year, the preservation program has purchased 65 properties totaling 5,750 acres of farmland easements, Short said. Settlement on the properties will begin in the next several weeks. The total cost for the acres was about $10.6 million, and included federal, county and state funds.
Farmers can volunteer to place farmland in the state's agricultural district by promising not to sell or develop the land for 10 years. In return, farmers receive tax breaks and an opportunity to receive state money to permanently preserve the land.
In past years, the farmland preservation budget has declined, but farmland preservation has continued. Short said that would remain true in 2014.
“We would be able to match the $1.4 million with some federal funding so we might get to $2.5 million for preservation,” Short said. “We could do about 15 properties and maybe 1,000 acres with that amount.”
Farmers have just started submitting requests for land appraisals for the next round of farmland preservation. Short said the state will work with farmers to determine how to get the biggest bang for the buck, whatever the level of that buck might be.