Preserving the land
The state’s Agricultural Preservation Restriction program preserves farmland and maintains a quality of life
By ANITA FRITZ, Staff Writer, The Recorder, September 16, 2019
Talk to farmers across Franklin County, and many will tell you they’re not getting rich doing what they do. Those who have never farmed but would like to try their hand at it will tell you it’s expensive to open a farm because land prices are high for someone just starting out, so they have to think long and hard before taking the leap.
First-time farmers Caroline Pam and Tim Wilcox, owners of Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland, say they wouldn’t have been able to farm without the state’s Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) program.
“We had never farmed before,” Pam said. “Being able to put our land into APR not only guarantees it will always be preserved, but gives us the financial ability to keep going.”
The state’s APR program allows farmers to pay the difference between fair market value and agricultural value for land that then has permanent deed restrictions placed on it, so that it is preserved and protected as agricultural land forever.
Pam, 42, said she and her husband have placed every one of the 27 acres they own in APR. They have year-to-year leases on another 27 acres and she said many of those are also in the program.
“It’s so difficult to be a firsttime farmer and do it without APR — it’s expensive,” Pam said. “You have to buy land at full development value and that’s a challenge for new farmers like us who didn’t grow up farming, so we had to start from scratch.”
The APR process
Pam said the first piece of land the organic farmers bought was not in APR, so they had to pay full market value, but soon after they purchased it, they started the APR process and received the difference in cost from the state once it was approved.
The couple started farming in 2006. Both from New York, they moved here because agricultural land is so good in the Pioneer Valley. Over the years, they’ve purchased 5 to 6 acres at a time to accumulate the 27 acres in both Sunderland and Whately.
Pam said it was tough at first, because it takes about three years to convert to organic, and there was a lot of investing they had to do. So being able to put their land in APR was something they needed to do.
“Farming is all about access and affordability,” she said. “The APR helps make it possible, but farmers also have to diversify and grow a variety of things, so if something doesn’t pan out, they’ve got something else to fall back on. It’s unpredictable — some crops succeed, some don’t. We also sell products to help financially. That way, we can sell things yearround.”
Pam said she and her husband sell their produce and products — which include sriracha hot sauce, salsa, tomato sauce and pickles — to wholesalers, stores, distributors and restaurants. Their products can be found locally at Whole Foods in Hadley, River Valley Market in Northampton, Franklin Community Coop (which includes Green Fields Market in Greenfield and McCusker’s Market in Shelburne Falls), several small retail shops and Millstone Market in Sunderland, to name a few. They also sell outside Franklin County and do a lot of online sales.
When talking to farmers of all types throughout Franklin County, many will say it is imperative to keep the agricultural industry alive and thriving, and say they appreciate that the APR is doing just that by preserving and protecting agricultural land from being built on or paved over by developers. Others, though, will say they want to sell their land at full market value, and the APR program doesn’t allow it.
Some APR history
More than 40 years ago, the APR was passed as law, allowing the state to pay farmers the difference between fair market value and agricultural value for permanent deed restrictions that preclude any use of whatever land they put in the program that would have a negative impact on agricultural viability.
The late James Williams, who owned Mount Toby Farm in Sunderland, and for many years had run it with his son Bob Williams until he died this past winter — his son continues to run it — fought long and hard to see the APR passed into law, always saying it was the best thing a farmer could do to protect his or her land.
Former state legislator and Agricultural Commissioner Jonathan “Jay” Healy, who now farms in Charlemont — The Sawmill at Hall Tavern Farm just off Route 2 — has put some of his land in APR. He said he worked with Williams to make the voluntary program, which offers non-development alternatives to farmers, a reality in Massachusetts.
What the program does, Healy said, is make land more affordable to farmers and their operations.
The APR program was the first in the nation when it was created. It has protected roughly 73,000 acres on 906 farms throughout the state, with about 16,000 acres on more than 241 farms in Franklin County, and those numbers just keep growing.
Healy said the APR has not only preserved farms and kept them active and working, but has helped the people who farm them, and helped those farmers pass their farms on to children and grandchildren in an affordable way. He said it has also made it possible for new farmers, like Pam and Wilcox, to start businesses. “It has been an incredibly successful program,” Healy said. “We’ve protected a lot of nice farmland from being gobbled up by developers.”
The APR became law in 1977. Healy said when it first became law, it was something farmers were excited about doing, so many took part, but it has been more of a challenge in recent years, because land values have appreciated so much and farmers are torn between accepting less money to preserve their land than they would receive if they sold it at fair market value.
“Assessments have gone way up,” Healy said. “If a farmer’s son can afford ‘X’ and a developer can afford ‘Y’ and a farmer isn’t sure how long the son will farm, it can make for a difficult decision. The farmer might decide he or she had better sell and get a good price.”
He said, for example, dairy farmers are already not paid a fair price for their milk, so putting land in APR that they could get 15 times the amount for if they sold might look attractive. But, he noted, many dairy farmers are so dedicated — their farms have been in their families for generations — that they decide to do it anyway. “When you put land in APR, you have to have a farm plan,” he said.
Healy said about 8 acres of his 100-year-old family farm is in the APR program. There are many restrictions on that land. For instance, he can’t build solar unless it is going to power the entire farm. He can’t hold a wedding or family reunion unless he has a permit from the state, and so on.
Healy said a couple of the questions farmers face today, just like he did, include: What is agriculture? Where is it headed?
“Twenty, 30, 40 years ago we d i d n’t envision marijuana farms,” he said. “Things have changed a lot. So, farmers have to take a lot into consideration.”
When his farm was placed in APR, Healy’s brother was still alive, but now that he’s gone — the farm was owned by his father who put it in trust for his three children — they all have different ideas about what should be done and whether the land should be placed in APR.
Healy said he would like to take all of the money and reinvest it in the farm, but his sister and his brother’s children live miles away and some of that money is theirs.
“It has to be split three ways, so that can be a problem when trying to decide what to do with a farm where only one heir is farming,” he said. “How do you split it up when it’s inherited by more than one person? Does one or do two people buy out the others?”
Healy said what he does know is that his father never would have wanted to see the farm sold and paved over to make way for development, even if it brought top dollar. He said farmers work so hard to build something, and many feel that no price is enough to just let what they’ve built go.
Healy said when a farmer decides he or she wants to put land in APR, they file an application and the state hires an appraiser. The state then looks at comparable trends in farmland sales and values. Then, an offer is made and the farmer declines or accepts.
He said some negotiating goes on, and a farmer might decide to keep some of the land out of APR, in case a child or grandchild wants to build a house on it.
“It’s a tricky business. Sometimes it’s preserving land and family at the same time, and sometimes it’s doing the exact opposite,” he said. The APR program is administered by the state Department of Agricultural Resources and is the cornerstone of the state’s farmland protection efforts. It seeks to save the best and most productive agricultural land remaining in the state; provide an opportunity for farmers to purchase farmland at affordable prices; help owners overcome estate planning and other personal issues, including age, health and retirement; and provide working capital for farm operations by releasing equity “locked up” in land values. It also protects scenic open space and environmentally sensitive land.
The state says that investment in the APR program benefits farmers, the state’s agricultural industry and state and local economies, consumers and the general population by bolstering Massachusetts’ $550 million agricultural industry by keeping farms in active commercial use, sending a signal to the industry and farmers that the state is serious about a strong and viable agricultural economy.
Farmers whose land is accepted into the program are able to realize equity from their land without being forced to sell their farms for development. The equity, Healy said, is quite often reinvested in the farm through the purchase of more land, equipment or buildings and by retiring farm debt.
According to the state, a major portion of APR participants spend all or most of their APR money locally and can plan their estates to allow for the transfer of ownership of their farms to their children — by reducing the value of restricted farmland to its agricultural value, gift or inheritance taxes are greatly reduced, eliminating the need for second- or third-generation farmers to sell their farmland to pay those taxes.
Healy said APR-restricted land becomes an opportunity for young farmers just entering the business to purchase affordable farmland, which stabilizes values and guarantees long-term availability of farmland. All a landowner needs is 5 acres minimum, if he or she has been in agricultural production for the previous two years. The farm must produce at least $500 in gross sales per year for the first 5 acres, plus $5 for every additional acre or 50 cents for each acre of woodland or wetland.
“The APR program provides quality of life in a bucolic area like ours,” Healy said. “Farmland contributes to the beauty of our area, and it provides clean air and water, wildlife and recreation.”
Anita Fritz is senior reporter at the Greenfield Recorder. She began working there in 2002. She can be reached at email@example.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 269.