Red Fire Farm sells land to Grace Land Trust, will continue to work the property

The Recorder, November 28, 2013. By David Rainville.

MONTAGUE — A local farming couple is selling the land right out from under themselves.

But Red Fire Farm and owners Ryan and Sarah Violand won’t be going anywhere, and selling their 122-acre property to the Mount Grace Land Trust ensures that, even if they do leave some day, their riverside fields and forest will remain farmland.

The couple will continue to own and operate the farm, but the land will be owned by the trust. This takes the weight of a heavy mortgage off the Voilands’ shoulders, so they can focus on growing their young farm on Meadow Road.

Planning for the pending purchase began last May, and Mount Grace announced Tuesday that it had raised its target $400,000. The transfer is expected to be completed in the spring. The trust will work out the terms of the initial 99-year lease with the Voilands before then.

The Voilands, or whatever farmers may succeed them, will own the house and assorted farm buildings, and any property improvements they make. Should the couple sell the buildings, it would have to be for “a fair and affordable agricultural price,” according to the land trust.

Both parties hope what they’re doing will catch on.

“We look forward to working together with the Voilands to demonstrate to New England farmers that this new model of farm ownership can offer solutions to some of the difficult financial questions facing farmers today,” said Leah Youngblood, executive director of Mount Grace.

The Voilands took out a $543,200 loan to buy the farm in 2009, according to the Franklin District Registry of Deeds. They had been running a farm in Granby for eight years. Their Granby farm consisted of 50 acres they owned, and several fields they leased on a year-to-year basis.

Though they gained some security by owning rather than renting, they also gained “an unsustainable amount of debt,” according to the trust.

The sale and long-term lease will give the couple the best of both worlds. They’ll have the security of ownership, without their money tied up in a mortgage.

The purchase is the first project of the trust’s Campaign for Affordable Farms. Its goal is to make it easier for folks like the Voilands to get into agriculture and succeed.

“This arrangement allows us as two first-generation farmers — with no farmland to inherit — to own and manage a successful organic farming business in a place where farmland is some of the most expensive in the country,” said Ryan Voiland.

The high price of farmland isn’t the only problem.

“Finding farmland with the necessary infrastructure is getting harder, as increasingly farm buildings are sold separately from their farmland,” said Sarah Voiland.

While farmland can be protected and its purchase price kept low through agricultural preservation restrictions, the state program doesn’t include farm buildings or infrastructure.

“We are hoping this project can be a model for how to secure our working farms as whole entities,” Voiland said.

The Voilands and Mount Grace invite the public to an open house Dec . 14 from 1 to 4 p.m. at Red Fire Farm, 172 Meadow Road, to celebrate the program.