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South Carolina governor signs bill to help preserve working agricultural lands

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(The Center Square) — South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster signed a measure that aims to help landowners use voluntary conservation easements to preserve working agricultural lands.

H. 3951, the Working Agricultural Lands Preservation Act, creates the Working Farmland Protection Fund within the South Carolina Conservation Bank. The measure ostensibly complements the agricultural projects the bank funds by establishing a matching grant payment for qualified projects.

Grant applications must meet evaluation criteria, including the land’s natural resources value, the threat of non-agriculture-related development and a property’s current and future commercial agricultural economic viability. Additionally, landowners must earn at least 50% of their income from the eligible farmland.

“Farmers are the backbone of our state, and as more businesses and people move here, we must find innovative ways to protect our state’s most valuable farmlands,” McMaster, a Republican, said in an announcement. “This legislation provides farmers a cost-effective option to keep and pass down their families’ farms while ensuring that our state’s agriculture industry remains strong and our most precious natural resources aren’t lost forever to overdevelopment.”

According to a South Carolina Revenue and Fiscal Affairs review, “the funding for the Working Farmland Protection Fund is not specified [and] the number and amount of the grants that may be awarded is undetermined.” However, the agriculture, commerce and transportation departments “indicated the requirements of this bill can be fulfilled using existing appropriations,” according to the review.

The legislation also expands the Conservation Bank board membership to include the state’s agriculture commissioner and the secretaries of commerce and transportation.

“This important new legislation helps us continue to feed people and fuel our economy while protecting our state’s agricultural past, present, and future,” Commissioner of Agriculture Hugh Weathers said in an announcement.

Lawmakers passed the measure by a 100-7 vote in the House and 46-0 in the Senate.

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