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Towns Rally for Threatened Farmland

Farmland for sale sign

“My family has farmed this land for generations.”

This isn’t an unusual statement to hear in the Pioneer Valley with its long agricultural history that grew out of fertile soils surrounding the Connecticut River. Yet, while small-scale farming is enjoying a bit of a renaissance, today only a small percentage of people are still willing or able to work the land. That’s why you’re also likely to hear this: “We can’t do it anymore: We have to sell the farm.”

Farmland owners may come to this conclusion for several reasons. For example, the farm no longer provides a reliable income, or a family’s upcoming generation might not have any interest in farming. However, because it’s open and flat, farmland is extremely desirable for housing development. As the population of the Valley increases, so does the pressure to build on fertile farmland.

Fortunately, many landowners and communities in the Valley understand the importance of preserving their local farms—not only for growing food, but also for their economies and rural character. Right now, the towns of Hadley and Hatfield are working with Kestrel to save at-risk farmlands on both sides of the River that are important to the agricultural heritage of their towns.

HATFIELD: Preventing a Domino Effect

The Sliwoski Farm in Hatfield includes 26 acres of fields that abut Black Birch Vineyard. When this farmland went up for sale, neighboring farmers and town leaders were concerned: Losing this land to development could create a domino effect on nearby properties, forever changing the area’s rural character. The Vineyard was concerned about the impact of a subdivision on ground water quality and supply, which they rely on for their grape vines.

Fortunately, Massachusetts Chapter 61 tax law provided the Town the opportunity to exercise a right of first refusal to purchase the 26-acre property. But Hatfield had to work quickly and needed help coordinating funding to buy the land, so they reached out to Kestrel. The Town assigned Kestrel the right to purchase the property, and our team developed a plan.

With CPA funding approved by Hatfield voters and a loan from Farm Credit East, Kestrel will purchase and conserve the majority of the property with an agricultural conservation restriction held by the Town. Black Birch Vineyard will then buy the conserved land, ensuring its agricultural future.

HADLEY: Subdivisions Closing In On Farmland

In North Hadley, the Szala Farm is one of the largest unprotected farms left in town. Its 193 acres abut several smaller, protected farms in an active agricultural area, as well as Amherst’s Podick and Cole Conservation Areas. It is a certified organic farm with 95 acres of statewide important and prime soils. The property is valuable for wildlife as well, with woodland and wetland areas that are potential habitat for rare species.

New residential subdivisions are rapidly closing in around this area, and for several years Kestrel and the Town have been seeking to conserve this property. Its protection would meet Hadley’s goals of preserving large tracts of agricultural land as well as its rural character.

Kestrel is working on a plan to buy and conserve the whole farm, in partnership with the Hadley Conservation Commission and Massachusetts Department of Agriculture, the Town of Amherst, and agricultural enterprises. In May, Hadley Town Meeting will vote on whether to appropriate up to $360,000 in Community Preservation Act and other town conservation funds. This public funding is critical to the success of the project.

Community support is vital to ensure that the Valley’s farmland heritage remains part of our region’s future.

Learn more about how farms are changing in Massachusetts, according to the latest USDA Agriculture Census.

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