It’s work that has an impact over time. Thirty years ago, The Trustees helped secure an agricultural preservation restriction on one of the few remaining farms on Martha’s Vineyard. Recently, a young couple took on a 35-year lease of the farm to start a new dairy – a rare phenomenon in a state that has been losing dairies for decades. Castonguay provided technical assistance to the young farmers, conducted a site evaluation, and helped them develop a business plan based on Appleton Farms’ own dairy.
None of this would be possible without the support of local communities and conservation groups, says Castonguay, who notes that working farms in Massachusetts often have a high local profile. “These farms are the essential pillars of a community,” he says. “When they are threatened by development, or a farmer needs to sell, the local communities rally around.”
That was certainly the case in Westport when the 29-acre Oscar Palmer Farm came on the market a few years ago. One of the oldest intact farmsteads in the town, it sits on the main arterial road that leads to the village of Little Compton, Rhode Island, within a large swath of privately owned and protected agricultural land. The land had been idle for several years, caught up in probate following the death of the last owner. According to The Trustees’ South Coast Conservation Director Jennifer Dubois, the community was “anxious to get it back into the hands of a farmer,” and The Trustees began partnering with the town and local conservation groups to help that happen.
Westport’s Agricultural/Open Space Preservation Trust Fund committed $250,000 to purchase the land, and in 2008 town voters approved an additional $200,000 from the Community Preservation Fund to preserve and rehabilitate the historic buildings. This, in addition to private funds raised and committed by the Westport Land Conservation Trust, made the purchase of this vital working landscape possible. Representing the other groups in the deal, The Trustees bought the land and immediately put conservation and historic preservation restrictions in place. The Trustees are now looking for a private buyer who will farm the land and restore the buildings.
The confluence of groups interested in agricultural preservation, community vitality, and conservation does not always lead to easy deals. But as Commissioner Soares says, “there is a definite benefit when conservation and agricultural interests coexist. They are not mutually exclusive.” He points out that as the farming community adopts sustainable practices, those landscapes – particularly the border lands between open fields and forest – provide more habitat with greater diversity, and assist in water purification and consumption of carbon dioxide.
Intent on seeing such natural benefits increase, as well as fostering the community ties and engagement that can spring from tilled soil, The Trustees will increase the assistance they provide to farmers and other landowners through the Center for Agriculture and the Environment, covering topics such as organic practices, business planning, energy efficiency, and sources of funding.
Ultimately, says Castonguay, the organization’s goals boil down to three things: “We want to engage more people in agriculture, support a vibrant and sustainable local farm economy, and foster a deeper connection to farms and other open space.” Oh, and maybe a fourth: make sure no one has to eat tomatoes flown in from Florida, ever again.