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Title 7Subtitle BChapter XIVSubchapter CPart 1491 → Subpart A

Title 7: Agriculture

Subpart A—General Provisions

§1491.1   Applicability.
§1491.2   Administration.
§1491.3   Definitions.
§1491.4   Program requirements.
§1491.5   Application procedures.
§1491.6   Ranking considerations and proposal selection.

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§1491.1   Applicability.

(a) The regulations in this part set forth requirements, policies, and procedures for implementation of the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP) as administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). FRPP cooperative agreements will be administered under the regulations in effect at the time the cooperative agreement is signed.

(b) The NRCS Chief may implement FRPP in any of the 50 States, the District of Columbia, Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands of the United States, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

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§1491.2   Administration.

(a) The regulations in this part will be administered under the general supervision and direction of the NRCS Chief.

(b) NRCS will—

(1) Provide overall program management and implementation leadership for FRPP;

(2) Develop, maintain, and ensure that policies, guidelines, and procedures are carried out to meet program goals and objectives;

(3) Ensure that the FRPP share of the cost of an easement or other deed restrictions in eligible land will not exceed 50 percent of the appraised fair market value of the conservation easement;

(4) Determine eligibility of the land, landowner, State government, local government, Indian Tribe, or nongovernmental organization;

(5) Ensure a conservation plan is developed in accordance with 7 CFR part 12;

(6) Make funding decisions and determine allocations of program funds;

(7) Coordinate with the Office of the General Counsel to ensure the legal sufficiency of the cooperative agreement and the easement deed or other legal instrument;

(8) Sign and monitor cooperative agreements for the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) with the selected eligible entity;

(9) Monitor and ensure conservation plan compliance with highly erodible land and wetland provisions in accordance with 7 CFR part 12; and

(10) Provide leadership for establishing, implementing, and overseeing administrative processes for easements, easement payments, and administrative and financial performance reporting.

(c) NRCS will enter into cooperative agreements with eligible entities to assist NRCS with implementation of this part.

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§1491.3   Definitions.

The following definitions will apply to this part, and all documents issued in accordance with this part, unless specified otherwise:

Agricultural uses are defined by the State's FRPP or equivalent, or where no program exists. Agricultural uses should be defined by the State agricultural use tax assessment program. However, if NRCS finds that a State definition of agriculture is so broad that an included use could lead to the degradation of soils and agriculture productivity, NRCS reserves the right to impose greater deed restrictions on the property than allowable under that State definition of agriculture in order to protect agricultural use and related conservation values.

Certified entity means an eligible entity that NRCS has determined to meet the requirements of §1491.4(d) of this part.

Chief means the Chief of NRCS or designee.

Commodity Credit Corporation is a government-owned and operated entity that was created to stabilize, support, and protect farm income and prices. The CCC is managed by a Board of Directors, subject to the general supervision and direction of the Secretary of Agriculture, who is an ex-officio director and chairperson of the Board. The CCC provides the funding for FRPP, and NRCS administers FRPP on its behalf.

Conservation easement means a voluntary, legally recorded restriction, in the form of a deed, on the use of property, in order to protect resources such as agricultural lands, historic structures, open space, and wildlife habitat.

Conservation plan is the document that—

(1) Applies to highly erodible cropland;

(2) Describes the conservation system applicable to the highly erodible cropland and describes the decisions of the person with respect to location, land use, tillage systems, and conservation treatment measures and schedules;

(3) Is developed by NRCS in consultation with the landowner through the local soil conservation district, in consultation with the local committees, established under section 8(b)(5) of the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act (16 U.S.C. 5909h(b)(5)) and the Secretary, or by the Secretary.

Cooperative agreement means the document that specifies the obligations and rights of NRCS and eligible entities participating in the program.

Dedicated fund means an account held by a nongovernmental organization which is sufficiently capitalized for the purpose of covering expenses associated with the management, monitoring, and enforcement of conservation easements and where such account cannot be used for other purposes.

Eligible entity means Indian Tribe, State government, local government, or a nongovernmental organization which has a farmland protection program that purchases agricultural conservation easements for the purpose of protecting agriculture use and related conservation values by limiting conversion to non-agricultural uses of the land.

Eligible land means privately owned land on a farm or ranch that NRCS has determined to meet the requirements of §1491.4(f) of this part.

Fair market value means the value of a conservation easement as ascertained through standard real property appraisal methods, as established in §1491.4(g).

Farm and ranch land of local importance means farm or ranch land used to produce food, feed, fiber, forage, bio-fuels, and oilseed crops that are not identified as having national or statewide importance. Where appropriate, these lands are to be identified by the local agency or agencies concerned. Farmlands of local importance may include tracts of land that have been designated for agriculture by local ordinance.

Farm and ranch land of statewide importance means, in addition to prime and unique farmland, land that is of statewide importance for the production of food, feed, fiber, forage, bio-fuels, and oil seed crops. Criteria for defining and delineating this land are to be determined by the appropriate State agency or agencies. Generally, additional farmlands of statewide importance include those that are nearly prime farmland and that economically produce high yields of crops when treated and managed according to acceptable farming methods. Some may produce as high a yield as prime farmlands if conditions are favorable. In some States, additional farmlands of statewide importance may include tracts of land that have been designated for agriculture by State law in accordance with 7 CFR part 657.

Farm or ranch succession plan means a general plan to address the continuation of some type of agricultural business on the conserved land. The farm or ranch succession plan may include specific intra-family succession agreements or strategies to address business asset transfer planning to create opportunities for beginning farmers or ranchers.

Field Office Technical Guide means the official local NRCS source of resource information and interpretations of guidelines, criteria, and requirements for planning and applying conservation practices and conservation management systems. The Field Office Technical Guide (FOTG) contains detailed information on the conservation of soil, water, air, plant, and animal resources applicable to the local area for which it is prepared.

Forest land means a land cover or use category that is at least 10 percent stocked by single-stemmed woody species of any size that will be at least 13 feet tall at maturity. Also included is land bearing evidence of natural regeneration of tree cover (cutover forest or abandoned farmland) that is not currently developed for non-forest use. Ten percent stocked, when viewed from a vertical direction, equates to an aerial canopy cover of leaves and branches of 25 percent or greater.

Forest land of statewide importance means forest land that the State Conservationist, in consultation with the State Technical Committee, identifies as having ecological or economic significance within the State, and may include forested areas or regions of the State that have been identified through statewide assessments and strategies conducted pursuant to State or Federal law.

Forest management plan means a site-specific plan that is prepared by a professional resource manager, in consultation with the participant, and is approved by the State Conservationist. Forest management plans may include a forest stewardship plan, as specified in section 5 of the Cooperative Forestry Assistance Act of 1978 (16 U.S.C. 2103a), another practice plan approved by the State Forester, or another plan determined appropriate by the State Conservationist. The plan complies with applicable Federal, State, Tribal, and local laws, regulations, and permit requirements.

Historical and archaeological resources mean resources that are:

(1) Listed in the National Register of Historic Places (established under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), 16 U.S.C. 470, et seq.);

(2) Formally determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places (by the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) or Tribal Historic Preservation Officer (THPO) and the Keeper of the National Register in accordance with section 106 of the NHPA);

(3) Formally listed in the State or Tribal Register of Historic Places of the SHPO (designated under section 101(b)(1)(B) of the NHPA) or the THPO (designated under section 101(d)(1)(C) of the NHPA); or

(4) Included in the SHPO or THPO inventory with written justification as to why it meets National Register of Historic Places criteria.

Imminent harm means easement violations or threatened violations that, as determined by the Chief, would likely cause immediate and significant degradation to the conservation values; for example, those violations that would adversely impact agriculture use, productivity, and related conservation values or result in the erosion of topsoil beyond acceptable levels as established by NRCS.

Impervious surface means surfaces that are covered by asphalt, concrete, roofs, or any other surface that does not allow water to percolate into the soil.

Indian Tribe means any Indian Tribe, band, nation, or other organized group or community, including any Alaska Native village or regional or village corporation as defined in or established pursuant to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (43 U.S.C. 1601 et seq.) that is eligible for the special programs and services provided by the United States to Indians because of their status as Indians.

Land Evaluation and Site Assessment System means the land evaluation system approved by the State Conservationist used to rank land for farm and ranch land protection purposes, based on soil potential for agriculture, as well as social and economic factors, such as location, access to markets, and adjacent land use. For additional information see the Farmland Protection Policy Act regulation at 7 CFR part 658.

Landowner means a person, legal entity, or Indian Tribe having legal ownership of land and those who may be buying eligible land under a purchase agreement. The term landowner may include all forms of collective ownership including joint tenants, tenants-in-common, and life tenants. State governments, local governments, and nongovernmental organizations that qualify as eligible entities are not eligible as landowners, unless otherwise determined by the Chief.

Natural Resources Conservation Service means an agency of the Department of Agriculture.

Nongovernmental organization means any organization that:

(1) Is organized for, and at all times since, the formation of the organization, and has been operated principally for one or more of the conservation purposes specified in clause (i), (ii), (iii), or (iv) of section 170(h)(4)(A) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986;

(2) Is an organization described in section 501(c)(3) of that Code that is exempt from taxation under 501(a) of that Code; and

(3) Is described—

(i) In section 509(a)(1) and (2) of that Code, or

(ii) Is described in section 509(a)(3) of that Code and is controlled by an organization described in section 509(a)(2) of that Code.

Other interests in land include any right in real property other than easements that are recognized by State law. FRPP funds will only be used to purchase other interests in land with prior approval from the Chief.

Other productive soils means farm and ranch land soils, in addition to prime farmland soils, that include unique farmland and farm and ranch land of statewide and local importance.

Parcel means a farm or ranch submitted for consideration for funding under this part.

Pending offer means a written bid, contract, or option extended to a landowner by an eligible entity to acquire a conservation easement before the legal title to these rights has been conveyed for the purpose of limiting non-agricultural uses of the land.

Prime farmland means land that has the best combination of physical and chemical characteristics for producing food, feed, fiber, forage, oilseed, and other agricultural crops with minimum inputs of fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, and labor without intolerable soil erosion, as determined by the Secretary.

Purchase price means the appraised fair market value of the easement minus the landowner donation.

Right of enforcement means a vested right set forth in the conservation easement deed, equal in scope to the right of inspection and enforcement granted to the grantee, that the Chief, on behalf of the United States, may exercise under specific circumstances in order to enforce the terms of the conservation easement when not enforced by the holder of the easement.

Secretary means the Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture.

State Conservationist means the NRCS employee authorized to direct and supervise NRCS activities in a State, the Caribbean Area (Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands), or the Pacific Islands Area (Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands).

State Technical Committee means a committee established by the Secretary in a State pursuant to 16 U.S.C. 3861 and 7 CFR part 610, subpart C.

Unique farmland means land other than prime farmland that is used for the production of specific high-value food and fiber crops, as determined by the Secretary. It has the special combination of soil quality, location, growing season, and moisture supply needed to economically produce sustained high quality or high yields of specific crops when treated and managed according to acceptable farming methods. Examples of such crops include citrus, tree nuts, olives, cranberries, fruits, and vegetables. Additional information on the definition of prime, unique, or other productive soil can be found in 7 CFR part 657 and 7 CFR part 658.

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§1491.4   Program requirements.

(a) Under FRPP, the Chief, on behalf of the CCC, will facilitate and provide funding for the purchase of conservation easements or other interests in eligible land that is subject to a pending offer from an eligible entity for the purpose of protecting the agricultural use and related conservation values of the land by limiting non-agricultural uses of the land. Eligible entities submit applications to NRCS State offices to partner with NRCS to acquire conservation easements on farm and ranch land. NRCS enters into cooperative agreements with selected entities and provides funds for up to 50 percent of the fair market value of the easement. In return, the eligible entity agrees to acquire, hold, manage, and enforce the easement. A Federal right of enforcement must also be included in each FRPP funded easement deed for the protection of the Federal investment.

(b) The term of all easements or other interests in land will be in perpetuity unless prohibited by State law. In States that limit the term of the easement or other interest in land, the term of the easement or other interest in land must be the maximum allowed by State law.

(c) To be eligible to receive FRPP funding, an Indian Tribe, State, unit of local government, or a nongovernmental organization must meet the definition of eligible entity as listed in §1491.3. In addition, eligible entities interested in receiving FRPP funds must demonstrate:

(1) A commitment to long-term conservation of agricultural lands;

(2) A capability to acquire, manage, and enforce easements;

(3) Sufficient number of staff dedicated to monitoring and easement stewardship; and

(4) The availability of funds.

(d) To be considered for certification, an entity must submit a written request for certification to NRCS, and must:

(1) Meet the requirements identified in paragraph (c) of this section;

(2) Use or agree to use for FRPP funded acquisitions, the Uniform Standards for Professional Appraisal Practice or the Uniform Appraisal Standards for Federal Land Acquisitions in conducting appraisals;

(3) Hold, manage, and monitor a minimum of 25 agricultural land conservation easements, unless the entity requests and receives a waiver of this requirement from the Chief;

(4) Hold, manage, and monitor a minimum of five FRPP or Farmland Protection Program conservation easements;

(5) Have the demonstrated ability to complete acquisition of easements in a timely fashion;

(6) Have the capacity to enforce the provisions of easement deeds;

(7) For nongovernmental organizations, possess a dedicated fund for the purposes of easement management, monitoring, and enforcement where such fund is sufficiently capitalized in accordance with NRCS standards. The dedicated fund must be dedicated to the purposes of managing, monitoring, and enforcing each easement held by the eligible entity;

(8) Be willing to adjust procedures to ensure that the conservation easements acquired meet FRPP purposes and are enforceable; and

(9) Have a plan for administering easements enrolled under this part, as determined by the Chief.

(e) NRCS will notify an entity in writing whether they have been certified and the rationale for the agency's decision. Once NRCS determines an entity qualifies as certified:

(1) NRCS will enter into a cooperative agreement with the certified entity through which NRCS may obligate funding for up to 5 years. New parcels or prior-year unfunded parcels submitted for funding by certified entities must compete for funding each year. Selected parcels and funding will be added to the existing cooperative agreement using an amendment to the cooperative agreement. Funding expiration dates for the added parcels will be in the amendment to the cooperative agreement;

(2) NRCS will accept applications from certified entities continuously throughout the fiscal year;

(3) Certified entities may elect to close easements without NRCS approving the conservation easement deeds, titles, or appraisals before closing;

(4) Certified entities will prepare the conservation easement deeds, titles, and appraisals according to NRCS requirements as identified in the cooperative agreement;

(5) NRCS will conduct quality assurance reviews of a percentage of the conservation easement transactions submitted by the certified entity for payment. The review will include whether the deed, title review, or appraisals were conducted in accordance with the requirements set forth by NRCS in its certification of the eligible entity or in the cooperative agreement entered into with the certified entity; and

(6) If a certified entity closes on the easement without a pre-closing NRCS review, and the conservation easement deed, title, or appraisal fails the NRCS quality assurance review, NRCS will provide the certified entity an opportunity to correct the errors. If the certified entity fails to correct the errors to NRCS satisfaction, NRCS may consider decertification of the entity in accordance with paragraph (f) of this section.

(f) Review and decertification of the certified entity. (1) The Chief will conduct a review of the certified entity a minimum of once every 3 years to ensure that the certified entities are meeting the certification criteria established in §1491.4(d).

(2) If the Chief finds that the certified entity no longer meets the criteria in §1491.4(d), the Chief will:

(i) Allow the certified entity a specified period of time, at a minimum 180 days, in which to take such actions as may be necessary to correct the identified deficiencies, and

(ii) If the State Conservationist has determined the certified entity does not meet the criteria established in §1491.4(d) after the 180 days, the State Conservationist will send, by certified mail, return receipt requested, written notice of proposed decertification of the entity's certification status or eligibility for future FRPP funding. This notice will contain what actions have not been completed to retain certification status, what actions the entity must take to request certification status, the status of funds in the cooperative agreement, and the eligibility of the entity to apply for future FRPP funds. The entity may contest the Notice of Decertification in writing to the State Conservationist within 20 calendar days of receipt of the notice of proposed decertification.

(3) The period of decertification may not exceed 3 years in duration, with duration of decertification based upon the seriousness of the facts; and

(4) The entity may be recertified upon application to NRCS, after the decertification period has expired, and when the entity has met the requirements as outlined under §1491.4(d).

(g) Eligible land:

(1) Must be privately owned land on a farm or ranch and contain at least 50 percent prime, unique, statewide, or locally important farmland, unless otherwise determined by the State Conservationist; contain historical or archaeological resources; furthers a State or local policy consistent with the purposes of the program; and is subject to a pending offer by an eligible entity;

(2) Must be cropland, rangeland, grassland, pastureland, or forest land that contributes to the economic viability of an agricultural operation or serves as a buffer to protect an agricultural operation from development;

(3) May include land that is incidental to the cropland, rangeland, grassland, pastureland, or forest land if the incidental land is determined by the Secretary to be necessary for the efficient administration of a conservation easement;

(4) May include parts of or entire farms or ranches;

(5) Must not include forest land of greater than two-thirds of the easement area. Land with contiguous forest that exceeds the greater of 40 acres or 20 percent of the easement area will have a forest management plan before closing, unless the Chief has reviewed and approved an alternative means by which the forest land's contribution to the economic viability of the land has been demonstrated;

(6) NRCS will not provide FRPP funds for the purchase of an easement or other interest in land on land owned in fee title by an agency of the United States, a State or local government, or by a nongovernmental organization whose purpose is to protect agricultural use and related conservation values, including those listed in the statute under eligible land, or land that is already subject to an easement or deed restriction that limits the conversion of the land to non-agricultural use;

(7) Must be owned by landowners who certify that they do not exceed the adjusted gross income limitation eligibility requirements set forth in part 1400 of this title;

(8) Must possess suitable onsite and offsite conditions which will allow the easement to be effective in achieving the purposes of the program. Unsuitable conditions may include, but are not limited to, hazardous substances on or in the vicinity of the parcel, land use surrounding the parcel that is not compatible with agriculture, and highway or utility corridors that are planned to pass through or immediately adjacent to the parcel; and

(9) May be land on which gas, oil, earth, or other mineral rights exploration has been leased or is owned by someone other than the applicant and may be offered for participation in the program. However, if an applicant submits an offer for an easement project, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) will assess the potential impact that the third party rights may have upon achieving the program purposes. USDA reserves the right to deny funding for any application where there are exceptions to clear title on any property.

(h) Prior to closing, the value of the conservation easement must be appraised. Appraisals must be completed and signed by a State-certified general appraiser and must contain a disclosure statement by the appraiser. The appraisal must conform to the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practices or the Uniform Appraisal Standards for Federal Land Acquisitions, as selected by the eligible entity. State Conservationists will provide the guidelines through which NRCS will review appraisals for quality assurance purposes. Entities must provide a copy of the appraisal to NRCS.

(i) The landowner will be responsible for complying with the Highly Erodible Land and Wetland Conservation provisions of the Food Security Act of 1985 (1985 Act), as amended and 7 CFR part 12.

(j) The entity may substitute acres within a pending offer. Substituted acres must not decrease the value of the offered easement or the value of the parcel in meeting program purposes. With the State Conservationist's approval, a cooperating entity may substitute pending offers within their cooperative agreement. The landowner and parcel must meet eligibility criteria as described in §1491.4(e). The State Conservationist may require re-ranking of substituted acres and substituted parcels.

[76 FR 4039, Jan. 24, 2011, as amended at 77 FR 6944, Feb. 10, 2012]

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§1491.5   Application procedures.

(a) An Indian Tribe, State, unit of local government, or a nongovernmental organization will submit an application to the State Conservationist in the State where parcels are located.

(b) The State Conservationist will determine whether the Indian Tribe, State, unit of local government, or a nongovernmental organization is eligible to participate in FRPP based on the criteria set forth in §1491.4(c).

(c) The Chief will determine whether an eligible entity is a certified entity based on the criteria set forth in §1491.4(d), information provided by the application, and data in the national FRPP database.

(d) The State Conservationist will notify each Indian Tribe, State, unit of local government, or a nongovernmental organization if it has been determined eligible, certified, or ineligible.

(e) Eligible entities with cooperative agreements entered into after the effective date of this part will not have to resubmit an annual application for the duration of the cooperative agreement. Entities may reapply for eligibility when their cooperative agreements expire.

(f) Throughout the fiscal year, eligible entities may submit to the appropriate State Conservationist applications for parcels, in that State, with supporting information to be scored, ranked, and considered for funding.

(g) At the end of each fiscal year, the lists of pending, unfunded parcels will be cancelled unless the eligible entity requests that specific parcels be considered for funding in the next fiscal year. Entities must submit a new list of parcels each fiscal year in order to be considered for funding unless they request that parcels from the previous fiscal year be considered.

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§1491.6   Ranking considerations and proposal selection.

(a) Before the State Conservationist can score and rank the parcels for funding, the eligibility of the landowner and the land must be assessed.

(b) The State Conservationist will use national and State criteria to score and rank parcels. The national ranking criteria will be established by the Chief, and the State criteria will be determined by the State Conservationist, with advice from the State Technical Committee. The national criteria will comprise at least half of the ranking system score.

(c) At least 30 days before the ranking of parcels, the State Conservationist will announce the date on which ranking of parcels will occur. A State Conservationist may announce more than one date of ranking in a fiscal year.

(d) All parcels submitted throughout the fiscal year will be scored. All parcels will be ranked together in accordance with the national and State ranking criteria before parcels are selected for funding.

(e) The parcels selected for funding will be listed on the agreements of the entities that submitted the parcels, and the agreements will be signed by the State Conservationist and the eligible entity. Funds for each fiscal year's parcels will be obligated with a new signature each year on an amendment to the agreement. Parcels funded on each fiscal year's amendment will have a separate deadline for closing and requesting reimbursement.

(f) The national ranking criteria are:

(1) Percent of prime, unique, and important farmland in the parcel to be protected;

(2) Percent of cropland, pastureland, grassland, and rangeland in the parcel to be protected;

(3) Ratio of the total acres of land in the parcel to be protected to average farm size in the county according to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture;

(4) Decrease in the percentage of acreage of farm and ranch land in the county in which the parcel is located between the last two USDA Censuses of Agriculture;

(5) Percent population growth in the county as documented by the United States Census;

(6) Population density (population per square mile) as documented by the most recent United States Census;

(7) Proximity of the parcel to other protected land, such as military installations, land owned in fee title by the United States or an Indian Tribe, State government or local government, or by a nongovernmental organization whose purpose is to protect agricultural use and related conservation values, or land that is already subject to an easement or deed restriction that limits the conversion of the land to non-agricultural use;

(8) Proximity of the parcel to other agricultural operations and infrastructure; and

(9) Other additional criteria as determined by the Chief.

(g) State or local criteria as determined by the State Conservationist, with advice of the State Technical Committee, may include:

(1) The location of a parcel in an area zoned for agricultural use;

(2) The performance of an eligible entity's experience in managing and enforcing easements. Performance must be measured by the closing efficiency or percentage of parcels that have been monitored and the percentage of monitoring results that have been reported. The number of years of an eligible entity's existence, budget, or staffing level will not be used as a ranking factor;

(3) Multifunctional benefits of farm and ranch land protection including social, economic, historical and archaeological, and environmental benefits;

(4) Geographic regions where the enrollment of particular lands may help achieve national, State, and regional conservation goals and objectives, or enhance existing government or private conservation projects;

(5) Diversity of natural resources to be protected;

(6) Score in the Land Evaluation and Site Assessment system. This score serves as a measure of agricultural viability (access to markets and infrastructure); and

(7) Existence of a farm or ranch succession plan or similar plan established to encourage farm viability for future generations.

(h) State ranking criteria will be developed on a State-by-State basis. The State Conservationist will make available a full listing of applicable national and State ranking criteria.

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