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Saving the Bluegrass farm by farm

MIDWAY — The soil on the rolling Lantern Hill Farm is deep and rich. Two Eclipse champion Thoroughbreds have been raised there.

"It is among the best in the world in what it can produce," owner Suzi Shoemaker said. "I would like to see future generations have the opportunity to raise horses here. Whether they want to or not, they will have that opportunity."

Last month, Shoemaker took an important step to make that happen. She donated a conservation easement for her 184 Woodford County acres to the Bluegrass Conservancy, a private, non-profit land trust.

Such easements are voluntary agreements, tailored to the needs of each owner and property, that keep the land as open space as a defense against suburban sprawl. The land remains in private hands, and the owners can qualify for tax benefits, including income tax, estate tax and property tax reductions.

A dozen other farms also were protected by conservancy easements in December.

They marked a significant milestone: The conservancy, founded in 1995, reached its goal of protecting 10,000 acres by 2010.

"This is a tremendous moment for our land trust," said Mackenzie Royce, the conservancy's executive director.

The conservancy said the 10,000-acre mark covers 68 farms and "creates a critical mass of conserved properties which save our endangered cultural landscape, contribute to the local economy, reduce the cost of community services, and honor our unique brand of identity and 'sense of place.'"

The recent parcels include Heaven Trees Farm (119 acres), where Thoroughbred filly Rachel Alexandra was born; and Greenfields Farm (94 acres), which was the family farm of Isaac Shelby, the state's first and fifth governor.

Both are in Fayette County. Greenfields is in the south eastern part of the county, where the conservancy has been trying to obtain easements.

The parcels also include the 702-acre Resting Acres Angus cattle farm in Bourbon County. It is the largest easement ever for the conservancy.

The farm is owned by Bart and Pam McFarland, who have been acquiring land since Bart bought a small parcel 18 years ago.

"We're trying to conserve the land around us so it doesn't develop into neighbor hoods and strip malls," Pam McFarland said.

She also mentioned the tax benefits, and their son, Houston, 11.

"He's a big farm kid," she said. "He doesn't want anyone living around him. He wants things to stay the way they are."

The conservancy's work is similar to the purchase of development rights program run by the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government.

A major difference is that the conservancy is private and receives no public funds. It gets donations from public foundations and grants, private citizens and corporate groups.

The conservancy has a paid staff of three in Lexington and is governed by a 17-member volunteer board.

At Lantern Hill Farm, Shoemaker, 54, said the region is lucky to have such an organization.

Besides the tax benefits and long-term protection of the land, she learned during her easement research that the house on her farm is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is the Cooper House, built by Civil War veteran John Cooper.

Shoemaker grew up near Cooperstown, N.Y., showing horses and dreaming of someday living with horses.

She came to Lexington in 1978 with a degree in general agriculture from Cornell University and got a job on a horse farm. The job was part office work and part working with horses.

She bought her first mare in 1981 at the Keeneland January sales. By 1989, she was able to buy a small farm on Paynes Depot Road.

In 1995, with the economy in recession and land prices low, she was able to buy 144 acres of her current farm. Using tobacco buyout money, she was able to buy 40 more acres in 2006.

Although she loves Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, Shoemaker said she would hate for her farm and others in the region to someday become museums.

She's proud that Lantern Hill is, and she hopes will continue to be, a "functioning farm." She raises no crops, but the horses she raises and boards pay the bills.

"Everything this farm does has to come from what I earn from the farm," she said. "There is no family fortune here. Every single day, I'm thankful that I'm able to live this way when so few people can even find a place to buy."