By Kari Blood Gazette Contributing Writer
If you’re a Pioneer Valley native, you may not realize what a unique region surrounds you. As a recent transplant from upstate New York, I have observed how nature, culture, education and agriculture come together here in a rich, productive tapestry that few other areas in the northeast can claim. Because of this tapestry, locally grown foods are plentiful and accessible today. But what will happen in the future?
In the past, most working people were farmers: for instance, in 1880, they made up 80 percent of the workforce in the United States. Today, while small-scale farming is enjoying a bit of a renaissance, only a very small number of people make a living from the land this way. As a result, farmland is rapidly being consumed by development. Many farming families don’t want to see their once productive fields become a subdivision of houses or a big box store, but they can no longer afford to continue farming and still support their families. Selling the land for development may seem like their only option for financial survival. This kind of scenario is playing out every day in our region and across the country. If this trend of losing prime farmland continues, the result would clearly be—as the American Farmland Trust says—“No Farms, No Food.”
Fortunately, there is a way to slow this loss and preserve agricultural lands for farming. The Forever Farmland Initiative (FFI) is a coalition of land conservation organizations, agricultural advocacy groups, government agencies and others working together toward the common goal of increasing the amount of permanently protected farmland in the Pioneer Valley.
Why does preserving farmland in our region matter? Certainly you can still buy produce at the grocery store, although that means you are purchasing foods shipped in from across the country or around the world. But preserving local farmland provides a wide range of benefits for the farmer, the consumer, the community and our area as a whole.
One important tool for preserving farmland in Massachusetts is called an Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR). An APR compensates farmers for the development value of their land in cash, so they can invest in their farm or divide assets during generational transitions, rather than sell their land for house lots or other development. The farmer or landowner maintains ownership and is required to ensure that it will always be kept in agricultural use. This lowers the financial value of the land, reducing the tax burden and making the property affordable for a new farmer who may want to buy it in the future.
Protected farmland must be kept in active agricultural production, and that helps ensure food security within our community: We know where our food came from and how it was produced. Local food is generally more nutritious, safer and better tasting than food that is shipped in from hundreds of miles away, and far fewer fossil fuel resources are required for transporting locally. What’s more, preserving land for farming enhances the local economy by keeping agriculture-related businesses alive, and by keeping money cycling locally. Finally, the Pioneer Valley has a long, rich agricultural history and some of the best farm soils in the United States. Once they are lost, they’re gone forever. Protecting our farmlands preserves the natural resources, scenic beauty and rural character of our region.
When landowners permanently protect their farmland, they are making an important commitment that benefits the entire community for generations to come. One of FFI’s first projects was to publicly recognize these protected lands with a “Forever Farmland” sign. These signs honor landowners who have chosen to conserve their property while also building awareness of the value of agriculture in our communities. This project began in cooperation with the town of Hadley, which leads the state in farmland conservation. Since then, Amherst, Sunderland, Granby and other towns throughout the Valley have been using the signs to recognize their protected farmlands as well.
The partners in the Forever Farmland Initiative each have their own role, geographic focus and resources for reaching the goal of preserving more farmland. Organizations like Kestrel and Franklin Land Trusts facilitate farmland conservation efforts directly with landowners, often in collaboration with town governments. They work with other partners, like the American Farmland Trust and the Trust for Public Land when larger or resource-intensive projects arise, as well as with Mass. Department of Agricultural Resources. Other partners like Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) provide support to keep farmers in business whether their land is currently preserved or not. All FFI partners aim to collaborate and support each other’s efforts, recognizing that we can do more when we work together.
Kari Blood is the Program Coordinator for Kestrel Land Trust and also coordinates the Forever Farmland Initiative.
Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.Click here to return to full list of Earth Matters articles.