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Saving the land: Columbia farmer plans the future of his historic property

Wednesday, December 5, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:45 a.m. CST, Thursday, December 6, 2012
Alan Easley's family has owned a 105-acre farm south of Columbia since the Civil War. Easley, however, recently decided to sell a portion of his family's farm because he stopped growing crops and raising cattle on that land.

COLUMBIA – Cattleman Alan Easley believes it's inevitable.

He's going to have to sell his 170-year-old family farm.

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The 105-acre tract east of Bearfield Road in south Columbia is mostly pasture, but it's dotted with trees and split by a section of Clear Creek. Easley, 70, is the legal custodian of the farm that's been in his family nearly as long as Missouri has been a state. His great-great-grandfather settled that land and surrounding property in the 1840s.

Easley will tell you that during the past half century he's watched development surround his family's cattle farm and block grazing routes. At the same time, adjacent highways have made his property an even greater prize for builders.

Such pressure prompted Easley to sell a 21-acre portion of his farmland in a spur-of-the-moment decision last spring. He expects to sell the remaining acreage in his lifetime, but he's torn about when to sell and who should get it. If he sells to the city, the land could become a park and nature sanctuary. If he sells to a developer, the majority of the land likely will become another residential subdivision.

Easley's not fond of the choice he faces.

“I wish the land was 50 miles from Columbia, so it could stay in the family for another 100 years,” he says. 

Easley has blue eyes and a gray mustache. He shifts his weight onto his good leg and raises his hands akimbo, palms up.

“Columbia is what it is," he says.

The historic property

On a farm the size of 80 football fields, Easley can show you the spot where his great-grandfather John William Easley built a two-room log cabin in 1862. The dirt in that spot looked different when he was a child, he says.

On the next hill over, he can show you an empty barn where his grandfather Edward Easley Sr. kept work horses and mules. The barn's frame is held together without nails, its beams locked together by a jigsaw puzzle of beams, wooden pegs and joints. The walls of the red barn are rotting up from the ground.

Easley points across the yard toward a sunken area of earth where his father kept a root cellar. A flagstone pathway still leads to the cellar's doorway. Easley got rid of the cellar after it flooded. Still, no matter how much dirt he piles onto the spot, the cellar's footprint refuses to disappear.  

Next to the ruined cellar is a white, wooden farmhouse. The front rooms are the oldest, built in 1872, Easley says. The house's crumbling porch is decorated with antique wooden trim, popular after the Civil War. Cedar trees shade the yard. Easley knows which one had a swing hanging from it when he was a child.

Across the street is the 21-acre pasture. Easley grazed cattle there last winter but sold it to developer Andy Beasley this year. On Monday, the Columbia City Council approved Beasley's request to rezone the land for single-family housing.

Next year, Beasley plans to build a 67-lot subdivision called The Village at Bearfield.

In a Nov. 8 letter to the city council, Easley asked the city to grant the rezoning request. 

"Development seems to be the only feasible option for the Easley farm," he wrote.

Easley rests arthritic hands on an azure blue farm gate. Behind its metal bars sits the idle field that now belongs to Beasley.

"Dirt-moving machines will probably be here by late December or early January, if the ground's not frozen," he says in a tone appropriate for a funeral. 

The farmer

Jeff Easley, Alan's son, says his father works hard.

“I always try to get him to do something for himself, but he never does. Did you see that truck he was driving? He buys them when they're about to fall apart.”

“He deserves to take it easy,” Jeff Easley says. Asked if he ever wanted to be a farmer, Jeff smiles and gazes into the distance. “Hell no,” he says.

Alan Easley is standing nearby. He says that when Jeff was a teenager, his son found a way to break almost every piece of farm equipment Easley offered. Now Jeff likes to fix motorcycles.  

Easley still raises about 25 cows on the old farm, but he can't work like he used to. His hands are like vise grips, but fat knuckles show the arthritis that can make threading a nut onto a bolt tricky. He limps on a bad knee. When he lifts a metal farm gate, he lowers his head and grimaces so no one can see.

Easley loves to tell stories. He'll tell you about the time he found a meth lab in his barn. He didn't know what it was, so he threw the buckets of chemicals in a trash can.

He whoops.

“That stuff's dangerous," he says with an odd sort of merriment about escaping death. "I could have killed myself."

Easley writes many of his stories. He's been published several times in farm and tractor magazines. In one article, he discusses his love for old farm stuff.

"As long as it doesn't fall apart when I pick it up, it's good enough for me," he wrote.

The farmland 

Easley knows that a developer could call him any day with a lucrative offer for more of his farmland. After all, that's what happened back in the spring.

Asked what he would do with any money he might get for letting go of the farm, Easley says he'll go hunting with his hound dog, Cloe.

Easley lives in a home on Turner Farm Road, farther away from Columbia and where there are fewer subdivisions.

He is the legal custodian of the family's old farm, where Jeff Easley lives, but he confers with his elder sister, Virginia DeMarce, before making any decisions.   

Easley declines to talk about his finances. He doesn't want to fuel speculation about how much his land might be worth.

"When I go to the grocery store for a cup of coffee, I don't want people saying there goes Mr. Moneybags," he says.

Easley warded off developers interested in the family farm since his mother died in 2006. Refusing offers became more difficult after “the economy got Obamasized,” he says.

One of his fields was locked between subdivisions, so when Beasley called last spring, Easley listened. After discussing Beasley's offer with his sister, the siblings decided to sell.

It seemed the logical thing to do. Automobile traffic made moving cattle to the pasture dangerous. Just the thought of herding cattle up Bearfield Road made Easley sick to his stomach.

Asked why he would consider selling the farm's remaining 105 acres when he'd prefer to keep it in the family, Easley sighed and pointed to a treeline, beyond which houses appear in orderly rows.

“If a cow gets out and your neighbors are farmers, you don't have to worry,” he said. “But if a cow gets out into a subdivision...” He falls silent.

Over the years, Easley has had to patch his fence after automobiles crashed through it. He remembered that one time a sheriff's deputy called him at 2 a.m. "Alan," he said. "There's a hole in your fence. I'll watch your cattle while you get down here."

The old farmer discusses how farms disappear.

People with urban sensibilities arrive in the country. They unintentionally interrupt farm life. Farmers die or go out of business. The land goes fallow while increasing in value. More people arrive. He illustrates a vicious cycle.

"Forty years ago everything from Ponderosa Avenue on the east to Rock Quarry Road on the west, and from Grindstone Parkway on the north to Gans Road on the south, was all farm ground," he says. He describes an area about a 7 1/2 square miles in size.

Easley can list six farms he's watched disappear in 40 years: the Nifong farm, the Frank Hall farm, the Cavceyfarm, the Gregory farm, the Joe Crane farm, the Philips farm.

These were his past neighbors and his father's neighbors. The new neighbors often don't understand their impact on a rural community, Easley says.

“People buy those houses because they want to live in the country, but then someone builds a house next to them, and someone builds a house next to them, and...”

Easley laughs.

“The whole world's crazy except you and me, right?”

Saving the land

The cattle farmer isn't interested in fighting development. He'd like to preserve his family's heritage, perhaps by making a city park out of his family's land. That's what his mother, Margaret Easley, suggested before she died.

Easley says the city has made no offer to buy his land. If it did, the price would probably be far less than a developer could pay.

In 2007, the city paid about $24,000 per acre, or a total of about $8 million for the 320-acre Crane property south and east of Easley's land. The Crane property now is Gans Creek Recreation Area.

A developer could pay much more per acre for Easley's property, says Mike Griggs, assistant director of the city Parks and Recreation Department

The city compensates for its weak buying power by also providing tax credits.

“A lot of our parks are acquired through a combination of donations and purchases. A lot of owners and developers know they can get tax credits for selling half a piece a land to the city and donating the other half,” Griggs said.

In 2004, the city bought 77 acres of the former Philips farm for about $1.2 million. The following year, developer Bristol Lakes Investment donated another 63 acres. These plots were combined to become A. Perry Philips Park.

Easley's property is “of interest” because it could link Nifong Park with Philips Park and the Gans Creek Recreation Area, Griggs says. The green corridor would be ideal for a trail like the MKT Nature and Fitness Trail and provide a sanctuary for wildlife.

Griggs says he can't discuss business specifics.

"I want to make sure that your story doesn't come out as a 'purchase negotiation' in the paper," he says. "Our interest is limited due to the fact that we have 460 acres adjacent to (the Easley) property. We usually never discuss specific properties with the media until we take a report to city council."

Easley said he would be open to the idea of preserving the homestead. The question is whether the city can make a competitive offer when Easley decides to sell the farm.

There's a lot of money to be made in developing Easley's land, Boone County Assessor Tom Schauwecker says.

In his office, Schauwecker tapped his keyboard to pull up a map of Easley's property. He whistled when he saw that the farmland contains a sewer line.

“That brown line is the path of progress,” Schauwecker said, pointing to his computer screen.

He said that a proposed east-west highway just south of Easley's property, in the Gans Road corridor, adds even more value. A southern road would help support traffic from a large subdivision.

Carol Grove is a consultant who helps property owners preserve land. After reviewing Easley's situation, she said the value of Easley's property for a park "cannot be understated." She points to development models in Kansas City and Boston, where green space has helped maintain quality living in dense, urban environments.

Griggs says Columbia is looking 10 and 20 years into the future to preserve property in "land banks" so that if development becomes dense, the city has options.

Once development occurs, the land is rarely reclaimed for nature, Grove says. "Allowing this 105 acres to remain field ... and be used as public space protects it and the community’s well-being."

"There is simply no better use for it," she said.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.


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Comments

Michael Williams December 5, 2012 | 2:51 p.m.

Well, you better hurry up and sell; your taxes are going waaaaay up on your profits since you will be a 1 percenter in reality instead of on paper.

Good luck!

(Report Comment)
John Schultz December 5, 2012 | 4:11 p.m.

Michael, it's a bit macabre of me, but I had to ball-park what the farm might be worth based on the Crane property figures mentioned in the article and see what the estate/death tax hit for it would be starting next year. At a bit over $2.5 million and with only the first million exempted starting next year, the heirs would owe roughly $750K on land that had been in their family for generations.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams December 5, 2012 | 4:31 p.m.

JohnS: You got it.

And many progressive folks bemoan the loss of the family farm, then support an administration that makes decisions promoting the loss of the family farm.

Go figure.

(Report Comment)

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