Massachusetts farmland preservation program flawed, audit says

MassLive, August 22, 2018, by Shira Schoenberg

A Massachusetts program meant to preserve farmland has at times made it harder for farmers to raise revenue to keep their farms sustainable, according to an audit released Wednesday by Massachusetts Auditor Suzanne Bump.

The audit also found the program is not well-monitored, and is overly complicated for farmers.

“The processes at the agency are very opaque and lack consistency, making it hard for farmers to enter the program, navigate within it, and pass it on to another farmer,” Bump said in a statement.

The audit looked at the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources’ Agricultural Preservation Restriction program, in which the state pays a farmer money in exchange for permanent restrictions on the land to make sure it remains used for agriculture.

Between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2017, Bump’s office visited 60 farms that are part of the program.

She found that while many participants were satisfied, some said they had a hard time getting permission for things like getting electricity to a farm stand, building renewable energy systems, opening a brewery or starting agritourism businesses like hosting weddings or farm-to-table dinners.

The department said in response to the audit that permission denials are rare, and the department must adhere to federal government requirements and look out for state and taxpayer interests.

Bump found that the program also made it harder for farmers to sell their properties, due to a clause that gives the state a right to first refusal when a farmer decides to sell and gives the department other rights in the sale process.

Bump wrote that the sale process is complex, lacks transparency and has prevented some farmers from getting maximum benefits.

For example, the department stopped a Western Massachusetts farmer from selling to a landscaper who wanted to grow native plants on the land — even though the farmer had been using the land for that purpose for 13 years. Farmers cannot back out of a sale once the department chooses a bidder, even if the farmer would have preferred a different bid.

The department said it denies or modifies sales when it is in the best interest of the preservation of the farmland.

In other areas, Bump said the department is not regularly monitoring farmland to ensure that farmers are complying with the Agricultural Preservation Restriction regulations. She said state officials should do more to educate farmers about the program. They should also develop a better system to obtain federal funding for farmland purchases.

Katie Gronendyke, a spokeswoman for the Department of Agricultural Resources, said, “The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources is committed to preserving and protecting the Commonwealth’s valuable and limited agricultural land, helping farmers purchase farmland at affordable prices, and safeguarding the future viability of Massachusetts’ agricultural industry….We will continue to review the auditor’s report as we evaluate agricultural land preservation procedures and opportunities within the Commonwealth.”

Last year, the administration created a new grant program to help farmland owners who buy land under APR protection restore the land to commercial farming. A separate grant program provides financial and technical assistance for owners of APR farmland. State officials held four listening sessions this year to hear farmers’ concerns about the APR program.

An environmental bond bill that Gov. Charlie Baker recently signed into law included $20 million for the APR program.

“Under the Agricultural Preservation Restriction, the Department has worked tirelessly to ensure 927 farms on over 73,000 acres across the state are protected from development and preserved for future farmers,” Gronendyke said.

Bump plans to discuss the audit Thursday on a visit to Westport River Vineyard with Sen. Michael Rodrigues and Rep. Paul Schmid, both of Westport, who have advocated for reforms to the program.

This story was updated with Gronendyke’s response.