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Mollie Babize is adjunct faculty at the Conway School of Landscape Design, authors a column (“Landings”) in the Shelburne Falls Independent, and works to protect historic land use and open spaces in western Massachusetts. 

This article originally appeared in the  Spring 2011 issue of Special Places, The Trustees' member magazine. To subscribe, join The Trustees today.

For farmers and the communities they feed, hope is beginning to sprout.

By Mollie Babize

Two generations ago, much of the Massachusetts landscape was a patchwork of farms and productive woodlands. People raised on farms were connected to the ebb and flow of life throughout the seasons. Planting and harvesting, shearing and slaughtering, sugaring and cutting cordwood linked our communities, our health, our very existence to the soil. It was a life lived close to the earth. But today, that’s no longer the case.

“A piece of our lives is missing,” says Jane Bihldorff. When she was a child, Bihldorff’s family owned a 450-acre farm in Canton, a rural haven where she remembers milking cows and making butter. But as the state built highways to serve its burgeoning population, Routes 95 and 128 cut through the property and left a mere 150 contiguous acres. When her father died in 1999, Bihldorff and her siblings faced some hard choices.

The location of these hundreds of acres of prime farmland, she explains, provided a natural attraction for developers. But Bihldorff’s father and uncle “were conservationists before the word was coined,” she says; her father, Charles Lyman, had served on The Trustees of Reservations’ Board of Directors from 1973 to 1979. So it made sense for the family to work with The Trustees to keep the land open. After carving out a few parcels for the next generation of family members, they put a conservation restriction on the rest.

Today at Pakeen Farm – located a stone’s throw from the busy intersection of Routes 95 and 93 in Canton – Bihldorff and one of her sons run a small but growing community-supported agriculture (CSA) program in the summer, and sell evergreen trees and holiday decorations at Christmas. She envisions a time when they will expand their current focus, adding a few hens, sheep, and hogs, all with the aim of improving the land. The momentum and community support they’ve experienced is “very exciting,” she says, “and we owe it all to being able to preserve it through an organization like The Trustees.”

Stories like Bihldorff’s are sprouting across the state, as communities and conservation organizations make protecting farmland a priority. As interest in local food and sustainable production surges, the economic benefits of protecting working farmland from development are becoming clearer. With innovative collaborations springing up across the Commonwealth, many Massachusetts farms have been given a whole new lease on life.

A Growing Opportunity
Pakeen Farm is one of 221 CSAs now operating throughout Massachusetts, reflecting a resurgence of interest in locally grown, sustainably produced food. “Consumers are asking for more and more frequent access to local products,” says Scott Soares, Commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, adding that Massachusetts is also ranked sixth nationally in number of farmers markets. Between 2008 and 2009, markets in the state grew from 160 to 231, including three dozen winter markets.

The number of farms in Massachusetts is also on the rise. Between 2002 and 2007, working farms rose from 6,075 to 7,691 – an increase of 27 percent. According to Ilene Bezahler, editor and publisher of Edible Boston, the agricultural economy is faring well as a result. She says the growth of CSAs and markets, as well as a boom in restaurants featuring local foods, has led to a rise in farmers’ wages. “People are starting to pay for what food really costs,” says Bezahler (at the same time, she notes, programs that provide coupons for low income shoppers or “senior shares” at farmers markets are helping to make local food accessible and affordable for those in need).

Despite these hopeful developments, however, Massachusetts faces an alarming decline in productive farmland, according to the Department of Agriculture. Between 1997 and 2007, 60,000 acres – a full 10 percent of the state’s farmland – were lost. At $12,202 per acre, the average value of farmland in Massachusetts is the highest in the nation.

That threat has prompted organizations including The Trustees to focus increasingly on protecting farmland. According to Wayne Castonguay, Director of The Trustees’ new Center for Agriculture and the Environment at Appleton Farms in Ipswich, such projects comprise an increasing percentage of the organization’s current conservation work.

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