Friday Takeaway: Once and future farmers

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, April 13, 2018, by Caroline Pam

This year marks the 25th anniversary of CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture) and the 40th anniversary of the Massachusetts Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) program. As I plant the first seeds of my farm’s 13th season, I’m reminded how essential to our farm’s existence both groups have been.

One of my first social outings when I moved to the Valley to apprentice at Food Bank Farm in September 2004 was to CISA’s annual Taste the View fundraiser. I had just moved to Hadley from New York City to find out if I could survive a full season farming and barely knew anyone besides my boyfriend (now my husband and business partner), Tim. My farm mentor, Michael Docter (now of Winter Moon Roots), had offered me an extra ticket, and Tim’s Hampshire College roommates had volunteered as servers for the dinner, so I wasn’t entirely on my own. That night, I discovered the Valley’s convivial network of farmers and local food lovers that ultimately convinced us this was the best place to start our own farm.

Eighteen months later, CISA helped us find Belle Rita Novak, who invited us to join the farmers’ market she managed in Springfield at the X (now the Forest Park Farmers Market) when we were total novices growing weird Asian and European vegetables on an acre of rented land. Belle Rita persuaded her loyal market customers to turn up every Tuesday with her good-natured badgering, and she directed each one of them to our market stall. She later attended our wedding at Woolman Hill in Deerfield, hosted our first baby shower and became a sort of surrogate mom to us both as our farm and family grew.

After two years of farming on scrappy rented fields in Hadley, we finally found a house for sale with some farmland behind it, and the landowner was ready to sell. Although the six-acre piece had always been farmed, it wasn’t protected by any conservation restrictions, and the owner wanted to be paid the full development price for it as a building lot. In order to make the land affordable, we submitted an APR application to sell the development rights to the state and permanently preserve it as farmland. Luckily, Rick Chandler at the Department of Agriculture helped shepherd our application through the bureaucracy and recognized the importance of preserving even small parcels so that young farmers like us could afford to buy land.

More than 10 years later, we just finalized another APR on a six-acre field that we bought three years ago. This time, the process took a lot longer, but we’re excited that some of our best land will now be preserved forever. We’ll use the proceeds from the sale toward building our commercial kitchen, an investment that will hopefully keep our farm viable for many years to come.

Over the past 40 years, the APR program has preserved around 900 farms and over 70,000 acres in Massachusetts. We feel very fortunate to own a few of them. But there are thousands more acres of prime farmland still at risk of development, and the APR program is one of the best ways to prevent their permanent loss. Any loss of this precious resource is truly heartbreaking, especially when there are many farmers who are struggling to secure good land.

Aside from protecting new land, the APR program has an important role in overseeing the transfer of existing APR farms to new ownership in the next several years as farm owners retire.

I hope the program will prioritize access for beginning farmers.

The Massachusetts Department of Agriculture is holding a listening session on April 4 in Worcester to solicit feedback on the future of the APR program and is accepting comments on its APR Looking Forward website through April 13.

It has taken us many years to cobble together our little patchwork of fields because even land preserved at agricultural value here in the Valley is some of the most expensive farmland in the country. I’m also very conscious that, while gaining access to land has been challenging for me and Tim, people of color and immigrants sometimes face additional roadblocks to land ownership that need to be addressed.

CISA’s PVGrows Network is organizing a day-long forum on April 7 to discuss land access, food justice and other challenges facing the local food system.

It’s a privilege and a big responsibility to cultivate some of the finest farmland in the world, and I’m looking forward to working with our partners at CISA and the Department of Agriculture to make sure future farmers can do it, too.

Caroline Pam owns and operates Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland with her husband, Tim Wilcox. The farm grows organic vegetables, makes award-winning sriracha and salsa and hosts an annual hot pepper festival, Chilifest, in September.