More leeway for farmers

The Recorder. September 01, 2014. By Richie Davis.

A lot has changed since Massachusetts began its first-in-the nation Agricultural Preservation Restriction program.

More than 68,000 acres have been protected on more than 800 farms statewide, with 15,305 acres on 218 Franklin County farms protected by selling development rights to the state to keep farmland in production.

Yet the definition of agriculture has changed over 35 years as renewed interest in farming has spawned enterprise down on the farm.

Some of those ventures, from food processing to agritourism, have been encouraged by the state Department of Agricultural Resources yet have caused controversy when sought for protected APR lands.

Now, a new provision to the APR program, approved as part of the state budget process, adds some needed flexibility, say program advocates. Yet the added flexibility, including an appeals process where APR approval is denied, comes as federal changes threaten to tighten the farmland preservation effort.

The legislative changes, recently signed by Gov. Deval Patrick, make allowable a five-year special permit for activities, such as weddings or “mud runs” on APR land and also grants the Agricultural Land Preservation Committee appeal authority if the department denies those permits or certificates to allow farm-related business, such as brewing beer or producing wine.

“There’s been a tug-of-war with the program for years over a couple of things,” said Franklin Land Trust Executive Director Richard Hubbard, who was part of a panel that proposed the legislative changes to APR, which he oversaw for 15 years at the agriculture department. That tug-of-war has involved how to protect the permanent economic viability of farmland and not making protected farmland unaffordable to future farmers by adding permanent features, like expensive houses.

“It’s not carte blanche for these non-agricultural activities to happen on APRs,” Hubbard said. “They’re still going to be looking for some tie-in with agriculture on the property, and at least 75 percent of the APR land has to be agricultural use. There’s a lot of competition for APR land, and nobody’s begrudging a landowner from getting as much value as they possibly can for land for agricultural purposes.”

Some have argued APR farms had been put in a competitive disadvantage with other farms.

“There were agricultural activities or non-agricultural activities that the state Department of Ag Resources was promoting heavily, but when it came to whether those activities could take place on APR farms, the state would not let them take place, or put severe restrictions on them,” said A. Richard Bonanno, Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation president.

“The state would say, ‘We can’t allow this road race to take place because of soil compaction,’ where you might have a farm right next to it with a pick-your-own operation that’s seeing more foot traffic and car traffic than an APR farm that wants to do four road races a summer,” said Bonanno, pointing to what he sees as an economic disadvantage to APR farms.

“APR farms shouldn’t be second-class citizens,” he said. “As farmers have wanted to do more of these activities, the state was saying ‘no.’ The goal of the department is not just to protect the farmland, but also to ensure the economic viability of the farm. Yet if all you are is in the wholesale business, it’s very, very difficult to make ends meet.”

Federal constraints

Meanwhile, the federal Agricultural Conservation Easements Program, which has matched the state APR money about dollar for dollar for more than 15 years, is being consolidated with other programs under the new Farm Bill, with less of that money becoming available and additional bureaucratic hurdles, said Hubbard.

For example, there’s a new “economic significance” criterion for that federal money and additional regulatory delays, said Hubbard, who hopes that as the home of the nation’s original farmland preservation program, Massachusetts can be certified as a “state in good standing” to avoid some of that bureaucracy.

The concern, he said, is that as federal funding decreases, it becomes more important to have a governor and state Legislature that continue to support farmland preservation.

Even with the new state legislation, said Hubbard and Clarissa “Cris” Coffin of the American Farmland Trust, there remain the “gray area” enterprises on APR farms that have a direct agricultural purpose — a winery, brewery or farm retail market, for example. Both said there’s a need to be flexible and yet assure that the intent of keeping agriculture viable is the bottom line.

“The problem is, the definition of agriculture is morphing,” said Bonanno.