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State auditor finds faults in APR program

  • Brooke Woodside of Wilmington, Vt., picks strawberries at Upinngil Farm, an APR farm, in Gill last year. Staff file photo



Recorder Staff
Friday, August 24, 2018

The state’s first-in-the-nation Agricultural Preservation Restriction program, which marked its 40th year last year, should take steps to become more transparent in decision-making and negotiations with farmers and also increase its monitoring of protected farmland, according to an audit released this week by State Auditor Suzanne M. Bump.

The audit is believed to be the first in the program, which has protected well over 15,375 acres on more than 245 farms in Franklin County.

Bump’s audit — based on visits to 60 APR sites, including Upinngil Farm in Gill, Davenport Farm in Shelburne, Savage Farm in Northfield and Antes Farm in Conway — found that several program participants did not understand its requirements, were not sufficiently monitored for compliance with those requirements and were unsure of the criteria used by the program’s leadership when making decisions regarding the sale and approved uses of APR land.

“The processes at the agency are very opaque and lack consistency, making it hard for farmers to enter the program, navigate within it, and pass it on to another farmer,” said Bump. “Many of the program’s policies have been adopted without public input, and their decision-making is often unexplained,” Bump said. “While on the whole, participants are satisfied with the APR program, it is clear that the Department of Agricultural Resources must do more to ensure it adapts to meet the needs of modern farmers, including accommodating agritourism and other revenue producing opportunities.”

The audit also noted that the Department of Agricultural Resources’ slow application processing has caused it to miss out on opportunities for the federal government to cover 50 percent of purchase costs, totaling more than $3 million in lost federal money during the audit period from July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2017.

Franklin Land Trust Executive Director Richard Hubbard, who directed the APR program from 1984 to 2003, said he believes this is the first audit of the program that was established by the state Legislature in 1977 as a key component in protecting farmland.

“I don’t think there was anything in there that was a huge surprise,” he said.

“A lot of the recommendations aren’t new. People have been talking about them for some years,” said Hubbard, adding that his and other land trusts are generally in favor of them. “Generally speaking, I think it was a fair report.”

One particular identified problem — around the state having the option to sell the land at its agricultural value and how that’s done without a lot of input from the farmer — is probably what drove the call for an audit, guessed Hubbard, who added, “The land trust communities been fully supportive that the farmer, pretty much up to last minute of the state looking at exercising the option, should be able to withdraw, and that no farmer should be forced to have his or her farm sold to somebody they would prefer it not be sold to. I definitely support that recommendation.”

APR provides for the state to pay a farmer the difference between actual market value of the land and the agricultural value in exchange for a commitment to keep uses of and activities on the property focused on farming. The agreement stipulates that future construction or excavation on the land must be approved by the state and spells out a process a farmer must follow in selling the land.

As of June 30, 2017, the state agriculture department had entered into 909 APR contracts throughout the state, accounting for about 14 percent of total Massachusetts farm acreage.

The audit recommends the Department of Agricultural Resources conduct annual monitoring of APR land to ensure it’s being used appropriately, expand training to ensure participants know about program requirements, provide greater transparency and predictability in the process through decision-making guidelines and allow farmers greater flexibility to appeal or withdraw from APR farmland decisions.

Hubbard said that while the agriculture department hadn’t been monitoring APR land use for many years because “the program was so busy conserving, it lacked the capacity to go back and do monitoring,” it had been working to do so, “but obviously the auditor thinks they could do better, and I think that’s a fair assessment.”

The report also recommends working with federal agricultural officials to ensure the state receives available money for farmland purchase.

“We appreciated the amount of work the auditor put into this effort,” said Mark Amato, president of The Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation. “These findings closely mirror the many concerns that have been raised by our members, as well as the results of a survey we conducted of APR landowners last year. We look forward to working with (state agricultural officials) to implement these recommendations.”

On the Web: https://bit.ly/2P0Qj27