In the last few weeks, when the gravity of the pandemic began to dawn on Americans, most households went to the grocery store to stock up. For many of us, the experience of seeing empty shelves was quite shocking. Facing food scarcity is a scary feeling.
And it’s even more frightening to realize how many people face this harsh reality every day. Food insecurity is a real challenge around the world, and even here in the Valley over 100,000 local residents do not have adequate access to food. This is a sobering reminder how essential farms are to keep us all healthy and well-fed—not just during the pandemic crisis, but every day of every year.
That’s why Kestrel Land Trust is so pleased to announce that we have partnered with the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts to create a new Food Bank Farm to improve food security for households and communities around the region. This project was part of a larger effort to protect a 193-acre farm in North Hadley, which supports private farmland conservation and expands public conservation areas and trails in North Amherst.
The 142-acre Food Bank Farm will contract with local farmers who will grow organic vegetables for households at risk of hunger and to sell to schools in high-poverty school districts.
“This new farm will build on the success of the first Food Bank Farm in Hadley,” said Andrew Morehouse, Executive Director of The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. “It represents a big departure from the usual food bank model of relying exclusively on donated food from food retailers and commodities from state and federal governments. Instead, it’s an investment in local farmland for organic farmers to strengthen our local food economy while also providing a reliable source of healthy organic food for those who need it most—especially during these difficult times.”
It’s an investment in local farmland for organic farmers to strengthen our local food economy while also providing a reliable source of healthy organic food for those who need it most—especially during these difficult times.
The land off of Shattuck Road was purchased by Kestrel in October 2019, with a bridge loan from The Conservation Fund, and held until March 20, 2020 when The Food Bank purchased the farm. At the same time, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and Town of Hadley purchased an Agricultural Preservation Restriction, with state and town Community Preservation Act funds.
“The Baker-Polito Administration is proud to partner with Kestrel Land Trust and the Town of Hadley to protect and preserve this land for future generations, and congratulates the Food Bank on their commitment and vision for the future with this important project,” said Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources Commissioner John Lebeaux.
“The COVID-19 public health emergency has made even more clear the critical role both Massachusetts farms and food banks play in ensuring Commonwealth residents have access to fresh, nutritious food. By taking this important step to conserve this valuable farmland, we are helping to ensure a stable and secure food supply for the residents across Massachusetts that are most vulnerable and in need.”
Reggie Hall, Director of Conservation Loans with The Conservation Fund said, “The Kestrel Land Trust is an innovator in the field of conservation. This project will serve as a national model for how a local land trust can conserve farmland and woodlands in a way that directly contributes to the health and wellness of their community. It was a privilege to help them and The Food Bank buy and protect this farm to feed local people, and I hope this model will be shared and germinate in other communities across America.”
One supporter to The Food Bank that helped secure the purchase was the H. P. Kendall Foundation in Boston. The Kendall Foundation’s sole focus is to strengthen the food system of western Massachusetts and New England by helping local farmers gain market access to schools.
Kendall Foundation Executive Director Andy Kendall said, “This purchase demonstrates the power of collaboration among local groups committed to food security, open space, and creating opportunities for young and expanding farmers. An especially exciting aspect of this collaboration is between The Food Bank and Springfield Public Schools.”
A small portion of this farm is envisioned to become a model farm where volunteers and school groups work together to grow and harvest crops while learning about sustainable agriculture, environmental stewardship, and food access for all. Kestrel will retain a trail easement over the farm for walking on designated farm roads that link to the conservation lands and wetlands on the Amherst side.
Expanding a Town Conservation Area with Forest, Wetlands, and Fields
Another 25 acres off Route 116 were acquired by the Town of Amherst, funded by Community Preservation Act Funds. This new Szala Family Conservation Area will connect the Cole and Podick Conservation Areas, which was Kestrel’s first partnership project with the Town back in the early 1970s. Kestrel Land Trust will hold a Conservation Restriction over this town land, and will work with the Town to create a welcoming entrance with improved parking and trail access to connect these trails to others on the adjacent Food Bank Farm.
David Ziomek, Assistant Town Manager & Director of Conservation & Planning, Town of Amherst, said, “I have been in conversations with the Szala family over the course of two decades to discuss conservation options for their farm. In the meantime, the Town has protected several other adjacent family farms. This project is the capstone to secure the agricultural heritage of this area of North Amherst and North Hadley. We are thrilled to add part of the farm to Amherst’s conservation land in honor of the Szala family.”
Protecting Private Farmland Forever
In the third part of the project, 26 acres off Comins Road in Hadley were sold to a local farming family, who are part of Mapleline Farm. This portion of the land includes a farmhouse and several barns and outbuildings, and 15 acres of active agricultural fields that were protected by a Conservation Restriction held by the Town of Hadley Conservation Commission.
Jessica Dizek, co-owner of Mapleline Farm, said, “Our family is thrilled to see the Szala Farm protected after so many years of conversations about how to secure its future. As long-time farmers in this agricultural area of Hadley, we have been really worried that the increasing number of housing developments in this part of town would soon overtake the land. We are grateful to the Town, the State, and Kestrel for putting this farm protection project together in a way that helped our family expand our farm on Comins Road. As the proud new owners of the Szala’s old farm house, two barns, and outbuildings, and 15-acres protected for agriculture, our operation will be stronger for it.”
The story of this farm protection project began 25 years ago when the Valley Land Fund (VLF) started a conversation with the Szala family about protecting their farm. Kestrel Land Trust kept that conversation going since 2011, when it merged with VLF. Some seeds take a long time to germinate, and this one finally emerged into the light in 2018, when Kestrel created a workable purchase plan for the family and was concluded with the sale to The Food Bank, the Dizeks, and the Town of Amherst.
“Hadley leads the Commonwealth in the number of farms permanently protected, thanks to the willingness of local landowners and our partnership with the State and the land trust community,” said Christian Stanley, Chair of the Hadley Select Board. “With the Szala farm now protected, we are proud to have 4,000 acres of permanently conserved farm soils in town.”