40 years of protecting Pioneer Valley farmland

The Greenfield Recorder, July 28, 2017, by Richie Davis

Richard Hubbard looks out from Mount Sugarloaf at a staggering green-carpet of Pioneer Valley open space, with the blue Connecticut River snaking through it.

The patchwork of farm fields and forests, dotted here and there with tobacco sheds and barns, as well as roads, houses and assorted other buildings, is testament to the work of preservationists, like Hubbard, who have handled hundreds of transactions to protect farmland, along with wildlife habitat, scenic vistas and open space.

As former director of Massachusetts’ first-in-the-nation statewide farmland preservation effort, the Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) program, and then as executive director of the Franklin Land Trust, Hubbard points southward from the South Deerfield vantage point toward an 18-acre Monterey Rose parcel he recently helped protect with state Scenic Byways funding as the final piece in a block of protected farmland.

“Everything you’re looking at down there is conserved — the whole patch,” he said. “It’s really a remarkable valley. This is the view you’re seeing, and it really hasn’t changed that much.”

What’s gone now, Hubbard says, is that the smell of onions, which old-time farmers told him they remembered smelling from atop the tower. The predominance of that crop, along with a plentitude of potatoes and shade tobacco, has been replaced with an agricultural diversity that’s come with the “grow local” renaissance of the past 20 years.

But APR — which turns 40 this year and has helped conserve 15,600 acres in Franklin County and another 12,860 acres in Hampshire County as the largest farmland conservation effort in the region — faces some tough times, with funding cutbacks and increasing federal restrictions.

Nonetheless, APR, which permanently buys up development rights to farmland that’s voluntarily become part of the competitive program, has protected more than 241 farms in Franklin County among 900 farms statewide totaling more than 73,000 acres.

Though a little over 14 percent of the Massachusetts farmland has been protected, pressure from residential and commercial development — especially solar power projects — remains intense, particularly in eastern Massachusetts.

Locally, more than 15,000 agricultural acres have been protected through Franklin Land Trust, about half of the open space the nonprofit has preserved overall. Athol-based Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust has protected more than 4,000 acres of commercial-scale farms and many smaller, homestead farms, including Greenfield’s Just Roots Farm and Gill’s Upinngil Farm.

“It’s huge,” Hubbard says of the overall farmland protection’s overall effect in keeping farmland available and affordable. “I drive around this valley and I know the farms that wouldn’t be farms today if not for APR. It’s the most invaluable tool for keeping agriculture viable in this state, in this valley. No question about it.”

The 2012 Census of Agriculture shows 780 farms in Franklin County totaling nearly 90,000 acres, compared to 456 farms in 1978 that totaled 80,325 acres. (A farm is defined simply as any place selling more than $1,000 or more in agricultural products that year.)

The 2014 Franklin County Farm and Food System farmer survey of 134 farmers found 39 looking for a total of 47 parcels to farm. (People seeking land for new farming ventures were not counted, so the demand was assumed much higher.) Only four farmers indicated they might have idle farmland they’d be willing to lease. Cropland was most sought-after, followed by pasture, hay, sugarbush, wood lots, and orchards.

Part of the fix

By paying farmers with the difference between their farmland’s agricultural value and its fair-market value, farmland protection programs work at keeping the land in agricultural production. The agreements call for the farmland to be actively farmed, although Hubbard and Mount Grace Executive Director Leigh Youngblood admit it’s sometimes difficult to enforce that part of the covenant.

Other efforts, such as Community Involved in Sustainable Agriculture’s “buy local” campaign, have been successful in beefing up farm viability, and there’s a key role for programs to help ensure that young farmers are there to care for the land when older farmers retire.

But programs like APR keep good agricultural land from being gobbled up for development, says Youngblood.

“The New England Food Vision 2060 tells us we need to triple the amount of farmland in production (to achieve a goal of 80 percent self-sufficiency). So we can’t afford to lose any farms; we have to increase the number farms, and so many farms aren’t preserved,” she said. “There’s a long way to go, and the momentum’s certainly going in the right direction.”

Cris Coffin, policy director of the Keene, N.H.-based nonprofit Land for Good, and formerly of American Farmland Trust, said, “I think it’s been hugely important. When you look out in the Valley, there aren’t many farmers who don’t own or rent APR land. That’s because it’s been a way for farmers to afford land, whether they’re starting out or expanding their operations. It allows transition of land from one generation to the next, and allows the older generation to help with the transition (of the farm), particularly if they have children, some of whom want to farm and some don’t, to compensate those who don’t. For farmers who are looking for a way to finance their retirement, it’s been very important.”

Along the way, APR has been tweaked, with Hubbard working to make changes almost as soon as he became state APR director in 1984, to prevent protected farms in eastern Massachusetts from being snatched up at prices unaffordable to farmers for estates surrounded by farmland, with a mansion replacing the farmhouse.

One addition allows the state or land trust the right of “first refusal” to auction the APR property for its agricultural value, to ensure that it isn’t sold off at a price that would be unaffordable for farmers.

“That was an important addition to the program,” said Hubbard, “particularly for keeping the price affordable for the next generation of farmers.”

Homestead farms

Beyond even that green corridor visible from Mount Sugarloaf of alluvial soils that Hubbard others agree is among the best in the nation, if not the world, farmland has grown more valuable thanks to renewed support for locally grown food.

“What’s happened is that the smaller farmers have moved up into hills, to farms that maybe wouldn’t be active there right now if not for the pressure down on the valley floor,” said Hubbard, who joined the land trust in 2004. “That shows how vibrant agriculture is out, here when you have that kind of competition.”

Farmland, which was selling for about $500 an acre when he began working for what was then the state Department of Food and Agriculture, now goes for $10,000 or more, Hubbard says, as a function of supply and demand.

Jaap Molenaar, a co-owner of Pioneer Gardens, says that when he began farming in Deerfield in 1992, he rented land from six different property owners. It was because of APR, he says, that he was able to buy the 69 protected acres the perennials farm now owns — beginning with 14 acres it purchased in 2001.

“Otherwise, we couldn’t afford to buy it, because if there’s no protection on the land, it’s sold at more than its agricultural value” said Molenaar. An acre of the kind of prime-soil farmland that Pioneer has dotted with purple salvia, yellow coreopsis, pink yarrow and other perennials goes for $10,000 to $12,000, he estimated, whereas a 1½-acre building lot can fetch $100,000 or more, so the difference can be $40,000 or $50,000 an acre without protection for farmland that’s irreplaceable.

Molenaar, who still rents 23 acres, has been working with the land trust to buy some of that land through a deal that would convert it to APR to encourage the current owner to sell at its lower value. He says that because his perennial plants grow over a couple of years and he has to add compost and soil amendments to his crops, it’s important to own the land he’s farming.

“For us, it looks more and more like because of doubtful funding, that land deal is not going to happen,” Molenaar says.

Federal wrinkles

The state APR program began pairing with the federal Agricultural Land Easements counterpart beginning in the 1990s, said Hubbard. With funding for both state and federal programs reduced and being influenced by program restrictions from Washington, there are clouds over APR — for which the state allocation was just under $4 million, matched by the federal program.

“The high-water mark when I was doing the program, was about $25 million, a combination of state and federal funding. … Many more farms were eligible, many more farms came into the program and farms were not so much being judged against each other as for what they are, for their resource value by themselves,” Hubbard said.

Now, he says, “the concern is that the feds are driving the bus, and the state has handed the keys over to the feds.”

APRs are approved based on the farmland’s percentage of prime soils and concentration of actively farmed agricultural land versus woodland, but increasingly looks at development pressure in the county – a criterion Hubbard calls “sort of crazy. … That’s part of the challenge: the fed’s criteria don’t always necessarily match up with the state’s.”

What used to be a more flexible, responsive state program is now restricted by federal standards geared to larger farms, with much longer waiting periods, said Hubbard, who’s joined with Coffin and others in trying to see if the state can wrest control of its pioneering program and to develop specific state criteria that could be added to give more weight than those from Washington, since “Agriculture in Massachusetts doesn’t look like agriculture in Iowa.”

What’s existed until now has been an open application schedule, with farmers queued up knowing their farms had met the program’s criteria and would be funded in a matter of a few years.

“So if we got a call from a landowner saying ‘I’ve got to do something with my farm,’ we’d go out and get an application going through the process, ” said Hubbard. “Now we have to tell him, ‘Sorry, they’re not accepting applications until June of next year. People are very often in very time-sensitive situations. We could borrow money to help people who couldn’t wait for a year or two, because the conservation fund knew that a commitment on the part of the state was as good as money. Now you can just miss the cut this year and try to go back next year, but miss the pool better projects come along.”

He added, “We’ve been trying to figure out how to get some of missing pieces (of farmland protected) here, and its been hard. What happens, if you don’t conserve one farm, it’s like a house of cards, and it starts to fall apart. You’ve got to have a critical mass to keep agriculture viable. All it takes one farm closing to cause a cascading effect on farming in that area.”

That’s because of farm-related services, like equipment sales and repair, expenses involved in traveling between far-spread fields and the potential for conflicts with non-farming neighbors.

Leyden’s Bree-Z-Knoll Farm, which had applied unsuccessfully for APR funding for years but had been rejected because its soils and slopes didn’t meet the specifications, was among the farms helped by the state’s Landscape Partnership Program, which helped conserve 234 acres of the dairy farm’s and as part of a 960-acre preservation with help from FLT and Mount Grace.

The same program, which collaborates with the state Departments of Fisheries and Wildlife and Department of Conservation and Recreation to protect wildlife habitat, scenic vistas and recreational open space, has helped saved of agricultural lands in hilltowns that may not meet APR’s strict parameters but are important to preserve the region’s rural character, says Mount Grace’s land conservation specialist, Jamie Pottern.

Pointing to a collaborative program that also helped protect a 74-acre sugarbush and part of Diemand Farm as part of a 707-acre Wendell-Montague project, Pottern says.

“While it’s important to protect the largest, most fertile, commercial farms, pasture-based, diversified farms have always sustained communities in our region. Farms that raise livestock, some vegetables, wood products, etc are your traditional New England farms … and yet these are the most difficult to protect because they are perceived as less commercial and less threatened,” she added. “Conserving these hilltown farms not only protects the landscape, heritage, and sense of place in our communities, it supports the local economy and provides local food, fuel, fodder, and other wood products that sustain our communities — along with myriad other conservation values. Permanently protecting these farms will also create a fighting chance for the next generation of farmers to continue this long tradition of farming in our towns. These farms are essential to a secure a robust, diversified food system across our region.”

While the agricultural or conservation restrictions may be held by the state, the land trust or the town, most of the land continues to be privately owned and subject to local tax, often under Chapter 61A — although there are some exceptions, such as some APR land that’s been donated to the nonprofit land trust, said Hubbard.

“We look at it on a case-by-case, property-by-property basis,” he said. “If there’s a potential for generating income from agriculture or forestry, we usually decide to put under Chapter, but if it’s land where there’s an opportunity for public recreation, we usually ask for a tax exemption.”

While there’s a strong argument to be made for the need for houses and jobs apart from agriculture, a “cost of community services” study performed by American Farmland Trust in 2009 found that for every dollar of revenue from residential property, Deerfield spent roughly $1.14 to provide municipal services, with commercial and industrial development costing 51 cents per $1 of revenue. Open land costs 33 cents in town services per $1 of revenue.

“Every month, somebody comes, ’cause I’ve got some (potential) house lots,” says Deerfield dairy farmer Stephen Melnick, whose grandfather started Bar-Way Farm in the 1920s with about 30 or 40 acres. “I’m not interested in selling. I’d rather grow corn than houses.” His son, Peter, is standing close by, with Peter’s teenage son. All three are dwarfed by the corn growing behind them.

“If we wanted to, we’d have sold out a long time ago,” Stephen Melnick continued. “We have farming in our blood, and here we are,” on a farm that now includes 242 acres of protected farmland.

When the family sold its first chunk of development rights in 1987 under the APR program, Peter Melnick recalls, “The skeptics said, ‘Aw, you’re giving away the farm. It’s not going to be worth anything.’

“I don’t think anybody realized how valuable this land was to farm rather than to build houses on,” he said. “That’s been a pleasant surprise. It’s appreciated over time. We chose to take the and money buy other farmland, and that was helpful for us in growing our operation.”