Pact to Preserve the Land

The Recorder. July 16, 2014. By Richie Davis.

LEYDEN — When is protecting farmland much more than saving agricultural property and keeping the farm viable?

When it’s part of a much larger “Landscape Partnership Program,” in which the number of Leyden acres protected – 782 – exceeds the population of this hilly town.

The project, recently completed with approval of a state Agricultural Preservation Restriction for 221 acres of Bree-Z-Knoll dairy farm pasture, is being hailed by some of those residents as well as land preservationists because it’s an example of the state’s new landscape-scale program, designed to step up the effort to conserve Massachusetts’ best remaining large tracts of undeveloped land.

Athol-based Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, which brokered the two-year-long effort that began with farmer Warren Facey bringing together 10 neighbors to apply to the new program for a $1.32 million grant, called it “a unique experience because we were part of a larger story that involved supporting people’s livelihoods,” in the words of Sarah Wells, the land trust’s land conservation specialist.

The Leyden Working Farms and Forests Conservation Partnership, which closed with protection of the dairy farm Facey and his wife started in 1972 with two cows and that now numbers 170 milkers, also protects Sweet Morning Farm and land owned by Angels’ Rest Retreat Center and Spirit Fire Retreat Center.

“From the first neighborhood meeting, it was clear that the people who showed up really cared about their town and each other,” Wells said.

Traditional farmland protection sources couldn’t be used because of Bree-Z-Knoll’s sloping hillsides and soil types, but Facey called neighbors together in 2012 to gauge their interest in taking advantage of the new program, aimed at protecting certain projects of 500 or more acres. The neighbors sought help from Mount Grace, Franklin Land Trust and The New England Forestry foundation.

“There were sixteen dairy farms here when we started, and we’re the last one,” said Facey, whose farm is now managed by his son, Randy, and daughter-in-law, Angie Facey.

“This is an opportunity to invest in the farm and help make sure that Bree-Z-Knoll will be a farm forever. It won’t just be growing houses, like a lot of the land out here.”

This year, the farm will produce approximately 400,000 gallons of milk.

Facey recalled that Leyden had about half the population 42 years ago when he arrived. He said his family plans to use the proceeds from the APR to purchase another piece of land for growing corn, to save the current expense of leasing cropland.

The set of conservation restrictions also protects 21 acres of Facey’s woodlot, as well as contiguous properties of 10 other neighbors.

In addition to the $1,157,125 partnership grant, there was $163,870 in private contributions from the Open Space Institute, the 1772 Foundation and the Fields Pond Foundation.

The project, by protecting Leyden’s last remaining dairy farm and the two retreat centers, will help safeguard 28 jobs. It also conserves a great variety of habitat, including rich forests, wetland systems, small ponds, vernal pools and streams, while it also protects 2.5 miles of scenic road frontage and hundreds of acres within the watershed of Greenfield’s drinking water supply.

In addition to the 782 acres protected with the grant, another 180 acres in East Colrain was acquired by the state Department of Fish and Game as part of the required match for the grant, bringing the total protected as part of the partnership project to 962.1 acres.

Meanwhile, Franklin Land Trust also announced Wednesday that it has helped protect an additional 44 acres in Leyden, including the former Zimmerman farm in the center of town, which it had purchased outright last November and sold to Robert and Lynette Snedeker on June 26. They, in turn, sought and approved an APR for the farm to raise goats and rent out for pasture and hay. A 95.6-acre property on East Hill Road was also approved for an APR by the state Department of Food and Agriculture after Franklin Land Trust helped with an application and initial appraisal. There, the Eric Lotreck family plans to lease the land to local farmers to grow hay and vegetables.

While not part of the landscape-scale partnership, both of those APRs help protect Leyden’s rural, agricultural qualities as well as fostering the overall ecosystem, said Richard Hubbard, Franklin Land Trust’s executive director.

“Because of this partnership, family legacies, rural character and vital habitats are now preserved,” Hubbard said of the larger project.

“Having worked with conservation-minded farmers and landowners in Leyden for over two decades, we are very pleased to help ensure hiking and bird watching will continue to be possible for the foreseeable future along wooded trails like those on the (William) Harris property. And to help neighbors like the (William and Cornelia) Reid family and Sweet Morning Farm maintain the quiet rural character of the center of Leyden. Together the protected land will provide opportunities for farming, hiking, hunting, snow-mobile trail use and access to the Leyden State Forest for generations to come.”