Orange’s Farm School grows by 94 acres with property buy

ORANGE — The 94-acre Rowe property in Orange is the newest addition to the farm and forest land owned by The Farm School, which has purchased the land to support its mission of farming and education.

The Farm School, which teaches adults and children about the hands-on business of farming, has permanently protected 19 acres of the land with a conservation restriction held by Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust. An additional 51 acres will be protected by an Agricultural Preservation Restriction in partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. The remainder, including existing house lots, will be used for a low-impact “cluster development” to provide affordable homes for farm staff and their families.

“This is the keystone that connects all the properties we own — and it has some really great agricultural land,” says Farm School founder Ben Holmes. “We’ve grazed our cattle there for the last six years, and we’re excited to now permanently protect that pasture and create a community for our staff.

The Farm School’s partnership with Mount Grace began in 1991, when Keith Ross and the late John Woolsey Jr. of Mount Grace brought Holmes to neighboring Sentinel Elm Farm to meet owners Alice and Julius Gordon. The Gordons, who had been dairy farming since 1945, wanted to be sure their land would continue to be farmed by people who shared their commitment to working the land. That meeting helped turn The Farm School from an idea to a reality.

Today, Sentinel Elm Farm is one of four farms in Orange and Athol, including Maggie’s Farm (formerly owned by Maggie and Bob Rouleau), the Waslaske Farm and now the Rowe property, which make up the 400-acre campus of the Farm School. The school runs educational programs for youth and adults and sells farm produce locally and across the state. Each year, more than 2,000 children come for three-day visits on the farm, while 15 adults learn to farm in a year-long training program. The school also hosts farm camps for youth and is home to a one-room schoolhouse for middle school students.

With a staff of more than 20, the Farm School runs a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operation and is a member of the Our Family Farms dairy cooperative. This winter, it plans to start a winter meat CSA with deliveries to the Boston area.

“The four conservation projects Mount Grace has assisted The Farm School with together offer a significant example of the ways conservation can support the local rural economy with new business enterprises while making it possible for traditional land uses like forestry and farming to continue,” says Mount Grace Executive Director Leigh Youngblood.

As the school grew, finding long-term housing for farmers, farm staff and their families became a critical need. The Rowe property, which sits right in the middle of the school’s other parcels, offered the possibility of homes that would allow staff members to walk to work, and give staff the opportunity to buy affordable homes with access to workable farmland in an agriculturally focused community. The smaller lot sizes of cluster development result in lower property taxes, making housing more affordable while using less land.

“This project is likely to be a model for other farms around the region working to address issues of land access, affordable farmer housing and conservation,” adds Youngblood. “The cluster development aspect of the project demonstrates an important private-sector piece-of-the-puzzle to balance the need for housing and the need for farms and forests. We can all get an education from such long-term partnerships that continue to grow and bear fruit.”

In 2013, the Farm School came to Mount Grace for help with financing to buy the property, and Mount Grace introduced the school to The Conservation Fund, a national conservation lender to help provide money to complete the purchase. Proceeds from the APR and selling the houses and lots to members of The Farm School community will be used to pay off the bridge loan.

The new homes will be designed by Maryann Thompson Architects. The Conway School of Landscape Design has created a site plan to ensure ecologically sensitive siting of the new buildings, in accordance with the Town of Orange’s Open Space bylaw, which permits houses to be clustered to conserve open space .