Preserving Agricultural Land
An Interview with Bob Berner
Bob Berner served as Executive Director of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) from1984 through 2012. MALT was created in 1980, the first land conservation organization in the country organized exclusively to preserve agricultural land. Under Berner’s leadership, MALT acquired conservation easements permanently preserving 71 Marin County family farms and ranches totaling 45,000 acres, and was recognized nationally as a leader in agricultural land preservation efforts. Before joining MALT, Berner was Executive Director of The Foundation for San Francisco’s Architectural Heritage (1975-1980) and before that was Vice-President, Finance, of The Nature Conservancy (1971-1975). In addition to leading MALT, he was a founding member and board member of the California Council of Land Trusts which works to advance the interests of local conservation efforts in state law, policy and funding, and was also a member of the steering committee of the Bay Area Open Space Council, a collaborative program of public and non-profit agencies and organizations providing regional leadership and expertise for the preservation and professional management of important open spaces in the San Francisco Bay Area. Berner holds degrees from Duke University (L.L.B., 1965) and Wharton Graduate Division, University of Pennsylvania (M.B.A., 1971).
All too often urban sprawl will take over agriculturally productive land for the sake of development. Bob Berner of Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) shares with us why he believes protecting farmland is fundamental for the greater good of his community.
Douglas Gayeton: Can you tell us what a conservation easement is?
Bob Berner: A conservation easement is an agreement between a landowner and a land trust, land conservation organization or in some cases a public agency, but most commonly a land trust whereby the landowner agrees to limit the uses of the land to a particular purpose – in our case, farmland and other examples that might be for habitat or natural resource conservation or open space. Our conservation at Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) is aimed at preserving the land as productive agricultural land. So the agreement creates a commitment on the part of the landowner to preserve the land as agricultural land for a cultural use. And the land trust, the agreement is entered between the landowner and the land trust MALT, is recorded and becomes a permanent easement on the title of the land to that property so that subsequent owners are bound by the terms and provisions of that agreement.
The land trust, MALT, is the holder of the conservation easement and becomes responsible for stewardship of the easement. Monitoring and enforcement of the terms of the easement establish a relationship with the propaganda who granted the easement and successive property owners to make sure that the terms of easement are respected and observed so that the purpose of the easement will be met.
Douglas Gayeton: West Marin, where you are based, is largely an agricultural area. What do you think might have happened to that area if there hadn’t been an organization like MALT?
Bob Berner: Marin County is a county on the edge of the metropolitan San Francisco Bay area where there is a population of over 700 million people and growing. The road pressure and the escalation in real estate prices has created difficulties for agricultural landowners because agriculture is often at relatively low value used compared to other uses for development housing estates and so forth. So keeping land and agriculture on the end of a large metropolitan area is difficult. So that’s the reason that MALT was created to try and help the farmers and ranchers in Marin County to keep the land in agriculture.
Douglas Gayeton: How does the work of MALT directly address the sustainability needs for the community?
Bob Berner: Agriculture has been a part of history and life of Marin County for over 150 years and is a fundamental part, not only the history and culture of the county but, of its environmental character and quality of life. It’s one of the defining physical features and historic characteristics of the county. So, losing a third of the county that is still in active and productive agricultural use would dramatically change the character of the county and alter its environmental quality and the quality of life of the people in the county. Helping to maintain and sustain agriculture and agriculture viability here is something that is broadly supported by residence and visitors alike.