This collection is intended for informational purposes. Landowners should work with their farmland protection partner to confirm state-specific program and application requirements with their state’s ACEP-ALE program contact.
ACEP-ALE for Landowners
- Learn About ACEP-ALE
- Prepare to Participate
Learn About ACEP-ALE
The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program – Agricultural Land Easement (ACEP-ALE) is a voluntary federal conservation program implemented by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) that protects private agricultural land from conversion to non-agricultural uses. ACEP-ALE provides funds that can be used to help buy conservation easements on farm and ranch land.
Learn About Agricultural Conservation Easements
A conservation easement is a voluntary deed restriction you can place on your property to protect natural resources and open space on your land by prohibiting future development. The easement is granted to an entity, like a land trust or a public agency, which has the authority to monitor and enforce the restrictions agreed to in the easement agreement.
These restrictions can cover either an entire parcel or just a portion. As a landowner, you would work with the entity who will hold the easement to decide which areas will be protected and which uses and activities will be prohibited.
Conservation easements are permanent and run with the land. This ensures the land will be protected from development in the future even with new landowners.
Agricultural Conservation Easements
An agricultural conservation easement is a specific form of conservation easement that is designed to permanently protect farmland and keep it available for farming. Agricultural conservation easements limit what can be built on the property and where, and limit non-farm development, subdivision, and other uses that are inconsistent with farming. As a landowner, you work with an entity that will hold the easement to decide which areas will be protected and which uses and activities will be prohibited in alignment with minimum requirements.
Land with an agricultural conservation easement may be more affordable to future buyers, supporting new and beginning farmers. Protecting your land with an agricultural conservation easement may also provide several tax benefits.
Explore How ACEP-ALE Works
The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) provides technical and financial assistance to conserve and protect farm and ranch lands, grasslands and wetlands. Under the Agricultural Land Easement (ALE) component, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) partners with eligible entities–such as Indian tribes, state and local governments and non-governmental organizations–to buy agricultural conservation easements on working agricultural lands.
NRCS sets the minimum criteria that all land, landowners, and entities must meet to qualify for funding. They process and rank applications submitted by entities. Once the easement transaction has closed, the entity you participate with will be your contact for monitoring and stewardship. As an additional protection, NRCS maintains a right of enforcement throughout the life of the easement.
Get to Know NRCS
NRCS is a federal agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. NRCS works with farmers, ranchers, and non-operating agricultural landowners to help improve agricultural productivity and protect natural resources through conservation programs.
The agency has a statewide office in each state and local service centers in most counties throughout the U.S. Some local service centers serve more than one county. ACEP-ALE program administration staff are often located in the state office, while district conservationists and field staff are in local offices.
NRCS will work with the organization you partner with and who will serve as the primary applicant to ACEP-ALE. Together they will communicate throughout the process on your behalf, from establishing or updating your records in NRCS’ system, to inspecting and confirming the easement’s eligibility.
Prepare to Participate
Identify Farmland Protection Partners
Participating in ACEP-ALE requires that you first find an eligible entity that will agree to hold the easement on your land. This entity will be your farmland protection partner throughout the application and acquisition processes and will continue to monitor and enforce the easement on your land once the closing is complete.
The entity will be the primary applicant for ACEP-ALE and is responsible for gathering and submitting the application materials and supporting documentation. The entity is the applicant because they are requesting the matching funds from NRCS to help pay you for the easement on your land.
Entities that are eligible to participate in ACEP-ALE are nonprofit organizations, like land trusts, state or local government bodies, or Indian tribes. The entity must have an existing program that protects farmland or ranchland in order to be eligible. Here are examples and explanations of the most common types of entities.
A land trust is a private, nonprofit organization that protects natural resources such as productive farm and forest land, watersheds, rivers and streams and recreational areas. Land trusts acquire land and/or conservation easements, accept donated land and/or easements, facilitate land protection projects, and steward properties and easements to ensure that the conservation purposes are upheld over time.
State and Local Programs and Agencies
Programs administered by public agencies can participate in ACEP-ALE.
The most active public entities are Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement Programs (PACE) that pay property owners to keep productive land available for agriculture. PACE is known as purchase of development rights (PDR) in many locations.
Twenty-eight states have agencies that administer PACE as a public program, often through the State Department of Agriculture. The state program either purchases and manages easements directly or provides funds that local governments or non-governmental organizations can use to purchase and manage the easement. Local PACE programs work the same way though are administered at the local level by a county, city or town government.
Another local entity that can serve as a partner is a local soil and water conservation district. Soil and water conservation districts are in almost every county in the U.S. and work with landowners in their area to promote resource conservation.
Tribal entities also are eligible to participate in ACEP-ALE. They must be a “federally recognized Tribe”, meaning they are listed in an annual publication from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in the Federal Register.
- Farmland Protection Directory
- Land Trust Alliance – Find a Land Trust Tool
- Conservation District Directory
- List of Federally Recognized Tribes
- List of National Tribal Organizations
Explore Your Eligibility
Landowners who want to apply to ACEP-ALE need to meet minimum eligibility criteria related to income and on-farm conservation compliance. Each landowner must separately qualify to receive USDA funds to be eligible. Therefore, it is important to identify every person or entity that has ownership rights in the land prior to applying, as each will need to separately complete eligibility documentation. If the land is owned by an entity, all members of that entity must meet income requirements. Depending on the entity ownership structure, members may need to meet conservation compliance requirements. Your farmland protection partner and the staff at USDA’s Farm Service Agency can help guide you through the eligibility certification process.
In order to be eligible, you will need to have the following three items:
- An average Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) below $900,000 for the three preceding tax years.
- Compliance with USDA’s conservation requirements for highly erodible land and wetlands.
- Farm records established with FSA.
The Farm Service Agency (FSA) is an agency of the USDA that handles many financial operations for the department’s programming. For ACEP-ALE, FSA is the agency that verifies landowner eligibility to receive funding.
FSA offices are often co-located with NRCS offices. These offices are called Service Centers and have locations in almost every county across the country. You can make an appointment with your local Service Center to get the relevant forms and receive assistance completing them. When making your appointment, ask FSA staff what documentation you should bring with you in order to streamline the process. If you have participated in USDA programs in the past, you may have records already established that identify the parcels you own and/or farm and other farm information.
FSA staff will enter your identifying information and parcel information into USDA’s centralized Service Center Information Management System (SCIMS), which is needed to process your eligibility certification. The resulting report is a Subsidiary Print that summarizes key eligibility information. Ideally, this documentation should be completed at least 2 to 3 months before applying. You should contact FSA and start the process as early as the start of the new federal fiscal year (October 1).
- FSA AGI Fact Sheet
- USDA Conservation Compliance Fact Sheet
- ACEP-ALE Fact Sheet
- Example Subsidiary Print
Check Your Land’s Eligibility
Have a discussion with your farmland protection partner about the criteria that need to be satisfied to make your land eligible for ACEP-ALE funding. Work with your partner to talk about your long-term land planning needs and goals and discuss how to make an ACEP-ALE easement work for your land within the program guidelines.
In order for your land to be eligible, it needs to satisfy a list of criteria:
- Be privately owned or tribal agricultural land on a farm or ranch;
- Fits into one of the four eligibility categories listed below when applying:
- Contains at least 50% prime, unique, or other productive soil,
- Contains historical or archaeological resources,
- Protects grazing uses and related conservation values, or
- Furthers a state or local government policy consistent with the purposes of ACEP.
- Be identified as cropland, pastureland, rangeland, grassland or other grazing land, and/or nonindustrial private forest land that contributes to the economic viability of the parcel or serves as a buffer from development; and
- Be subject to a written pending offer from an eligible entity to purchase agricultural land, or be subject to a buy-protect-sell transaction.
The following two items are listed as eligibility criteria in the ACEP-ALE program manual. In practice, NRCS will not consider projects to be ineligible based on these factors. These factors are considered in ranking. Be prepared to provide evidence of these factors at the time of application to make your project more competitive.
- Have access to markets, infrastructure, and other agricultural support services; and
- Be experiencing development pressure.
Thinking about what land to enroll in this program is important to do at the outset. The configuration of the acres that are proposed for enrollment will impact your land’s eligibility and ranking. If the proposed easement boundaries are different than the property boundaries, you may need to procure a survey.
Start exploring potential easement boundaries using the Web Soil Survey tool below, noting your property’s land uses and soil quality. For more information about whether you and your land qualify for ACEP-ALE, review and discuss these resources along with your farmland protection partner, and visit the ACEP-ALE for Entities page.