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As Mass. farmland gets developed, government agencies and nonprofits work to save what's left

One morning this past March, roughly 25 farmers and other landowners gathered at the North Hadley Sugar Shack for a pancake breakfast.

They were there to hear about a state initiative from officials with the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.

"It's really about preserving the rich history that we have here in Massachusetts. Protecting farmland for food security reasons, for economic reasons, quality of life reasons, environmental benefits as well," David Viale, agricultural lands programs supervisor, told those in attendance.

Viale said the forces working against farmland remaining farmland are significant. As housing prices in Massachusetts have shot up in recent years, so has the price of farmland.

And more and more farmers are selling to developers who build homes on the land.

"Development pressures [are] pretty severe on farmland. It's one of the easiest pieces of property to develop. It's flat, cleared, good soils," Viale said.

The state and nonprofit groups are now putting increased focus on trying to save those farms that are left.

'We don't want it divided or developed'

Viale oversees the state's Agricultural Preservation Restriction program, which has about $10 million to offer farmers this year, including federal money.

"Really what it does is it permanently protects farmland and it preserves that farmland so that it remains affordable for future farmers to access that farmland as well," Viale said.

The other New England states have similar programs.

Farmers who participate are paid the difference between what the land could fetch if it were put up for sale on the open market for development and what it would go for if it's always restricted to just being farmland.

It’s a one-time payment and then there’s a permanent restriction on the deed. Since the Massachusetts program started in 1980, close to 1,000 farms — totaling roughly 75,000 acres — have been set aside.

Carolyn Wheeler was at the pancake breakfast. She owns a cattle farm in Shelburne with her husband. In 2011, when a neighbor's property, which Wheeler had been farming, came up for sale, they took advantage of the farm preservation program.

"That paid for more than half of the purchase price, so it made it so that we could — with a mortgage of course — afford to buy their property," she said.

Now they've applied to put an additional 200 or so acres into the program.

"We don't want it divided or developed. We want to preserve the farm as is," Wheeler said.

Without the program, that could be an expensive choice. Massachusetts has the fourth highest cost per acre for agricultural land in the country, behind New Jersey, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

"It creates a struggle for farmers — whether it's new and beginning farmers or even established farmers who are just trying to acquire more land for their operations," said Jamie Pottern, New England program manager for American Farmland Trust. "It can be cost-prohibitive to get onto land."

And there’s some urgency.

More than 110,000 acres of Massachusetts farmland have been converted to other uses in the last couple of decades. Pottern’s organization ranks Massachusetts third in the nation behind New Jersey and Connecticut for the percentage of farmland expected to be lost by 2040 unless action is taken.

Gerard Kennedy is also concerned about what's happening with the state's farmland. He is the director of the agricultural conservation and technical assistance division at the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.

"We can't continue to lose farmland at the pace we're losing farmland," he said.

Kennedy led the development of the first-ever Massachusetts Farmland Action Plan, which was released last December.

Kennedy said the plan recognizes the state has a lot of competing priorities — including a need for new, affordable housing. He said the plan gives "a menu of options for planners, for land trusts, municipalities, legislators to draw from, so it's really an effort we see as a collective group effort to try and ensure that farmland is protected."

And in fact, towns and land trusts are already protecting additional land across the state with both public and private money.

Finding a successor

The state’s Farmland Action Plan also emphasizes the need to help older farmers figure out what will happen to their land when they’re ready to retire.

According to the state, the average age of a Massachusetts farmer is 60. Many have no succession plans, but efforts are underway to help older farmers figure out just that.

Shemariah Blum-Evitts, interim executive director of Land for Good, leads a farm succession school program in Pittsfield, Massachsuetts, on March 27, 2024.
Alden Bourne
/
NEPM
Shemariah Blum-Evitts, interim executive director of Land for Good, leads a farm succession school program in Pittsfield, Massachsuetts, on March 27, 2024.

An organization called Land for Good recently held what it calls a farm succession school at a library in Pittsfield. Nine farmers sat around a table and learned everything from budgeting for retirement to how to talk to family members about a transition.

"If they don't have a successor or even if they do but the legal and financial situation hasn't been figured out, there's a lot of reasons why things could go sideways and then both the personal and community benefits of it staying farm are at risk," Shemariah Blum-Evitts, interim executive director of Land for Good, said.

Dom Palumbo was one of the participants in the program. He owns a 30-acre farm in Sheffield, in southern Berkshire County.

"I primarily raise livestock for meat and I also grow vegetables and do farmer’s markets and produce a small amount of fruit," he said.

Palumbo is in his late 60s and doesn't have any children. He said the program featured concepts that are perhaps obvious but "don't kind of come together until you sit down and talk about them. They're all swimming around in one's head. Certainly that was my case. I'd think about one aspect of retirement or succession and then that would lead to another and another and pretty soon it would feel overwhelming and impossible."

Palumbo said one big takeaway is that the sooner a successor is identified and put in place, the more likely it is that a farm's productivity and viability will improve.

"As farmers get older, usually the trend is in the other direction," he said. "The farm becomes less productive because the farmer is able to do physically much less. It's very exciting to me to consider the prospect of being able to see the farm improve as I get older."

Palumbo said he's now taking initial steps to identify a successor for his farm.

'Unending amounts of gratitude'

Another program helping ensure agricultural land in western Massachusetts gets handed from farmer to farmer is run by the Berkshire Natural Resources Council.

"Berkshire farming is really in a crisis point with respect to continuing itself from lack of succession planning," said Rich Montone, director of development for the nonprofit.

"There are a lot of younger farmers in the Berkshires who are running successful farm businesses," he said, "but they're doing it off of leased land that is insecure to them."

They want property they can stay in for a long time but don’t have that security," he said.

"It prevents them from making capital investments in their business so that they can really grow their own farming operation and thereby make sure that Berkshire farming continues to be robust more generally," Montone said.

Molly Comstock (left) and Sharon Wyrrick (right) at Many Forks Farm in Clarksburg, Massachusetts, on April 11, 2024.
Alden Bourne
/
NEPM
Molly Comstock (left) and Sharon Wyrrick (right) at Many Forks Farm in Clarksburg, Massachusetts, on April 11, 2024.

On a rainy spring morning in April, Molly Comstock filled plastic planting trays with compost. She was inside a greenhouse on a vegetable farm in Clarksburg in northern Berkshire County. She's 45 and, in 2021, she lost the lease on land she was farming.

Comstock said it’s really hard to compete for farmland with other potential buyers like one recent transplant she was speaking to.

"From their New York City apartment, they took a virtual tour of a property up here and bought it, and it was prime farmland with a farmhouse. And just the ease at which at a certain income bracket you can just be like, 'Oh, let's just buy that farm.' But, for me, it's just not possible," Comstock said.

But things are looking up for Comstock now. She'll soon own the 19-acre Many Forks Farm where she's working.

Owner Sharon Wyrrick was ready to retire and willing to sell well below-market price. The Berkshire Natural Resources Council bought the property, is putting restrictions on it so it will always be a farm, then will sell it to Comstock at an even lower price.

Wyrrick said she wanted to make sure her place was affordable for another farmer.

"Especially in an operation like this," Wyrrick said. "It's on the small side. It's a vegetable farm. A farmer can only make a modest living here. So if it's at market value they're already behind being to survive."

And for Comstock, it's all still a bit surreal.

"It's going to take a couple seasons that I get to stay somewhere," she said. "It's like really exciting and brings me so much joy and just unending amounts of gratitude."

Before joining New England Public Media, Alden was a producer for the CBS NEWS program 60 Minutes. In that role, he covered topics ranging from art, music and medicine to business, education and politics.

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