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Farmland preservation program celebrates 40th anniversary

  • Workers cut perennial flowers for Pioneer Gardens on Mill Village Road in Deerfield. recorder file photo

  • Three generations of Melniks out standing in their field are Henry, his father Peter and his grandfather Steve Melnik in Deerfield. recorder file photo



Recorder Staff
Friday, October 20, 2017

SOUTH DEERFIELD — With the Pioneer Valley itself as a backdrop — its tobacco sheds, barns and an array of still-green farms off in the distance below — state officials gathered Friday to celebrate the vision of passing Massachusetts’ Agricultural Preservation Restriction legislation 40 years ago.

Since its inception, the state’s first-in-the nation APR program has permanently protected from development roughly 73,000 acres on 906 farms — with about 15,600 acres on more than 241 farms in Franklin County and another 12,860 acres in Hampshire County.

“Nowhere else in Massachusetts could you look out on a vista like this and see so much protected farmland through the APR program as you can see from Mount Sugarloaf,” said Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, whose support for the program and other initiatives he’s sponsored to help farmers was singled out moments earlier by Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst. “This is the poster child for this program, right here.”

The program, which purchases prime farmland development rights from farmers, may have been questioned by urban legislators when it was first proposed, said Rosenberg, whose district includes more APR farms and more protected acres than any other.

“We’re the stewards of this program, which came as a result of the hard work of legislators who preceded us,” said Rosenberg, pointing to former state Rep. and Agriculture Commissioner Jonathan Healy of Charlemont and citing former Congressman John Olver of Amherst, who was the original APR legislation sponsor when he was a state senator.

“You’ve not only preserved farms and kept them active and working, but you’ve helped people stay in the farming business, and to help pass farms on to children and grandchildren, and make it possible for new farmers who don’t have land to get access to land. This program, in all of its parts, is just an incredibly successful example of what innovation in the commonwealth can do, even in the smallest of industries.”

Rosenberg, like others who spoke, credited land trusts, participating farmers, local officials and federal and state partners who have helped a program from which the state and its residents “have benefited enormously.”

Caroline Pam, co-owner of The Kitchen Garden farm in Sunderland, told the crowd of about 50 officials and farmers. “Without this program, we probably wouldn’t be here today.”

Starting with a single acre in 2006 and today including 50 acres and employing up to 16 workers, Pam said, the farm “hit the wall of not being able to find any land” to expand because of high prices and growing competition for its prime agricultural soils.

“Over the years, access to land was consistently one of our biggest challenges to success,” she said. “There’s value in preserving these small bits (of land) so that young, startup farmers like us can afford to build our farms over time.”

Richard Hubbard, former state APR director and current executive director of the Franklin Land Trust, as well as president of the state association of land trusts, said “Ninety percent of what you see down here, at least, has been conserved. We’re not done yet here in the valley … It’s not a perfect program, but nobody’s figured out how to do it better,” despite similar programs in dozens of states.

State Agricultural Resources Commissioner John Lebeaux told the gathering that legislators 40 years ago realized that protecting prime agricultural land “was a matter of urgent public concern, and they had the foresight to do something about it,” to help farmers keep farming, with support from other programs.