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Not going anywhere

Andrew Kenneson | The Tribune | Posted: Wednesday, September 4, 2019 12:00 am

COVINGTON, Ga. — Dale Wiley knows where he’s going to be the rest of his life. He will be striding through the pine trees and savoring the quiet on his farm just south of Jersey, where he has lived his entire life, where his father lived his entire life and where his grandfather lived his entire life.

“I get homesick going to the mailbox,” he said about his life on Wiley Farm.

And he knows where his body will be for the rest of all time. Wiley has already built his own gravesite, complete with a headstone, under the shade of a tree on his farm, where he will be cremated and laid to rest once he passes on.

The bottom of the headstone reads: “Thank you Lord for the honor of being caretaker of a small part of your creation for a brief time.”

Dale Wylie
Dale Wiley stands in the middle of his farm, which will be a farm forever, thanks to a conservation easement he placed on the property in 2008. Andrew Kenneson | The Tribune

The middle holds his name and birthdate, then a blank space for the day of his death to be etched.

At the top, under an engraving of an old fashioned plow, it says: “You reap what you sow.”

If there was ever someone who would buck the trends outlined in these stories, who would look the pressures and temptations of growth in the face and say no, it would be Dale Wiley, the man whose very self is so steeped in the land he owns and loves that he’s already made every arrangement to spend all eternity there.

The reason Wiley is so confident about his own future is that he has also arranged for his farm’s future for all eternity. Wiley Farm is, in fact, one of a handful of properties that will undoubtedly be unchanged, no matter what kind of growth and change happens in the decades, even centuries, to come.

In 2008, Wiley placed a conservation easement on his close to 200 acres. The easement is a legal contract that means the land will remain a farm forever, no matter if it’s Wiley who’s working the land or anyone else.

Wiley's Farm
A sign marks Wiley’s Farm off Alcovy Station Road near Covington, Ga. Andrew Kenneson | The Tribune

Even if Jersey somehow becomes a metropolis, spreading out to engulf southern Walton County and beyond, with towering high rises and shopping malls and the headquarters of Fortune 500 companies, Wiley Farm will still sit, as a farm, amidst all the hustle, with Wiley’s ashes buried right in the middle.

It simply cannot be developed, ever.

“This whole farm is linked to family history,” Wiley said.

“So why wouldn’t you want to protect that? How can you put a price on that?”

Indeed. Wiley’s office is veritable museum to the history of the farm and his family, which is really one and the same.

His forbearers stare down from black and white pictures hung on the wall, many of them standing on pieces of dirt just a few yards away.

Wiley Farm has been in his family contiguously for over 100 years, after Wiley’s grandfather bought it in 1919.

But the roots go back further than that.

“I could never figure out why he bought it until I kept doing the research and found out it had been family property, for years,” Wiley said.

It turns out one of Wiley’s ancestors bought the land in 1824 after winning the rights in the land lottery. He has a copy of that original deed, with the plot sketched out by hand, sitting on his desk.

Wiley started farming cattle on it in the 1970s after saving up enough money working night shifts at the cotton mills in Monroe to buy it from his father.

He did it for 41 years, but has switched to growing pine trees because of some health problems.

The growth around the area in the 1990s made him think seriously about the future of his land. The farm is just 6 miles from Interstate 20, and he felt the pressure coming from the south.

He also reached out to every one of his family to see if anyone was interested in keeping on the family tradition. Nobody responded.

And that’s how farms often get turned into housing developments. Older farmers pass on land to their children, who don’t want to farm and sell the land off. Or they cash out when their bodies break down or after too many bad years.

“I could have developed this and eat, drunk, be married, and chased wild women for the rest of my life. Because this is some prime real estate on this end of the county,” he said.

But any future where Wiley Farm was not Wiley Farm was not a future Dale Wiley even wanted to think about.

“I said I got to figure out some way to protect this, to where, whoever winds up with the farm, it has to remain as it is. That’s when I started looking into the easement,” Wiley said.

Conservation easements drastically lower the value of the land because it can never be developed into what real estate people call “the highest and best use.”

Right now, for instance, Wiley reckons his land would be worth $30,000 to $40,000 an acre without the easement, if he sold a 2-acre plot. With it, it drops to $6,000 or $7,000.

The upside is that the federal government, or a private land trust, will pay a percent of the difference between the value of land. When Wiley did it, he got about 60% of the value he was giving up.

Because farmers must apply for these easements, he was only able to put 50 acres into the easement initially, meaning that was all he got paid for. For Wiley, however, it was never about the money. The rest he voluntarily put in himself.

All in all, the process took five years. He was finally awarded the conservation easement in 2008, the first farmer in Walton County to do it through the federal government program.

Even if it the farm finally falls out of the family’s hands, the easement stays. No one can build anything on it, not even another barn.

“My wife sometimes accuses me of still wanting control over this place when I’m dead,” Wiley said.

“And I always say, ‘Well, yes I do.’”

There are a few other places in Walton County with conservation easements.

The William Harris Homestead historic property is one.

There are over 1,000 acres that is part of Five Arrow Farms near the Newton County line. There is another group of properties near the Morgan County line totaling 530 acres. Both have been preserved in the past four years.

There’s a smattering of others, some near Alcovy Mountain, some near Monroe and a few others near Social Circle.

All in all, it’s about 2,500 acres of the 211,200 in Walton County that, like Wiley Farm, will sit untouched throughout the future.

The rules changed with the 2018 farm bill to make it easier to enter land into an easement, but the reimbursement amount is lower.

It’s still a lot of work, but conservation easements might be the only way to slow down growth, to keep just parts of Walton County the same.

That will only happen if people are willing to, like Dale Wiley, say no. And, as he fully acknowledges, that is a personal choice, which will vary from person to person. Not everyone has a deed dated to 1824 sitting in their office.

“People wonder why I do all this, do all the work and spend all the money,” Wiley said.

“But in my opinion if you don’t care where you come from you don’t know where you’re going.”

Dale Wylie Walks Away
‘My wife sometimes accuses me of still wanting control over this place when I’m dead,’ Herman Dale Wiley says of his property on Alcovy Station Road. ‘And I always say, “Well, yes I do.”’ Andrew Kenneson | The Tribune