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Promises kept: Corvallis family places farm in conservation easement

Bob and Arlene Bailey stand in the house built by Bob Bailey's grandparents in 1916. Last week, the couple signed a conservation easement that will preserve the family farm forever.

“Once destroyed, nature’s beauty cannot be repurchased at any price.”

– Ansel Adams

CORVALLIS – Before he died, Bob Bailey made his father a promise.

“I told him that I would keep this place as whole as possible,” Bailey said. “I knew how important it was to him.”

Just a little over two weeks before Christmas, Bailey and his wife, Arlene, signed a conservation easement to seal that promise forever on 209 acres of prime farm ground that had been in the Bailey family since 1913.

“I know that this piece of ground might not be in our family forever,” Bailey said. “But I know it will always be my family’s home.”

Those ties to the land run deep.

Bailey recounted some of that history while seated at the antique kitchen table inside the neat white farmhouse just off the lane that carries his family’s name. He said some of his first memories were here.

“My grandmother sacrificed a lot to build this home,” he said. “It’s filled with memories for me.”

Bailey’s grandparents, W.S. Bailey and his wife Elsie, left their homes in Wisconsin in 1912 to start a new life in the Bitterroot.

They first settled in the Three Mile area, but the lack of water forced them to resettle a little farther south in the small community of Corvallis.

W.S. Bailey found work there as superintendent of the school.

“His picture still hangs on the wall,” Bailey said with a smile.

Those first two years for W.S. and Elsie Bailey were hard. They split their time living in the Brooks Hotel in the winter and in tents on their new farm north of town during the warmer months.

After one of the tents burned down, Elsie Bailey found a way to come up with the $2,500 needed to build the home that later generations would come to know as the Bailey place.

Over the years, the family raised cattle, sheep, hay and sugar beets on some of the richest soils in the county.

“We removed a clothesline that had been here since the 1940s,” Bailey said. “The concrete went down three or four feet. There wasn’t a rock in the ground around it.”

Bailey’s father, Homer C. Bailey, instilled a deep appreciation in his son for the need to preserve good farmland. In the late 1990s, Bailey’s father signed a conservation easement with the Five Valleys Land Trust on a portion of the family farm.

Conservation easements restrict most development rights in exchange for cash payments or tax benefits.

Back then, conservation easements were relatively new and there was little support for the idea for landowners giving up their rights forever to subdivide their lands for developments.

“There wasn’t any financial gain for him, except for tax purposes,” Bailey said. “This piece of land was important to him ... I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to protect some of this ground too.”

Almost a decade ago, the Bitter Root Land Trust’s founder, Steve Powell, and the trust’s current executive director, Gavin Ricklefs, stopped by for a chat.

As they stood there in the driveway, Bailey shared stories about his family and their longtime connection to the land. He may have remembered the decades of toil that went into growing sugar beets or talked about the changes he’s seen in his lifetime.

That relationship would build for years as the Bailey family considered whether a conservation easement would work for them.

“It’s a pretty wonderful gift,” Ricklefs said. “Here’s a multi-generational farm with 12 feet of topsoil that is being preserved forever. It’s one of those places we want to save to be able to preserve working agriculture in the valley.”

Bailey’s farm is in the heart of the 3,000-acre Corvallis Agricultural Corridor that includes many working farms and ranches. More than a half-dozen property owners in the area have already signed conservation easements.

“It’s been really remarkable to see what’s happening in the Corvallis area,” Ricklefs said. “The Baileys’ backs up to the Woods Ranch, which was the very first open lands-bond easement. Right across the street, you have the Popham and Holloron places, which now have easements.”

“Here you have all these iconic family names, who are anchor members of the community,” he said. “You drive along the Eastside Highway and you see their names on the roads. They are all making an incredible commitment to the future of that area. There is something special about what’s happening there.”

Bailey has seen what happens when that doesn’t occur. Some of the valley’s best farmland already has been subdivided into small ranchettes.

“It makes it harder for people who are still farming,” he said. “When the newly created lots are too large, they generally end up as weed patches. And it’s hard to manage the irrigation once the land gets divided.”

On an irrigation district just east, Bailey saw the land get divided from 15 parcels to 85.

“Now you’re dealing with 85 personalities,” he said. “Each time the land gets chopped a little more, it becomes more challenging.”

The process takes patience and a family’s full support.

The Baileys had both.

“Our four kids are all supportive of it,” Bailey said. “Our oldest granddaughter wants to be a veterinarian. She tells us she wants to come here and take over.”

“This is home to all of our kids,” he said. “It’s what our grandchildren call home, too. It’s kind of a safety net.”

The memories of the Bailey farm don’t stop with the immediate family.

“There were a lot of family dinners here in this home,” he said. “There were a lot of Christmases shared. There were a lot of other people who share memories of this place too.”

“There were a lot of families who grew up around here and worked for my dad,” Bailey said. “All of those families helped build this place. A little bit of them is left here too.”

The Baileys both agree that there will be a new sense of peace come this holiday knowing that the easement process is complete.

“It’s protected now for perpetuity,” he said.

Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

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Associate Editor

Reporter for The Ravalli Republic.