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Saving Land and Money

Massachusetts helps farmers build more prosperous operations

September 18, 2003 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Populous Massachusetts curbs sprawl from cities like Boston and helps farmers stay on their land by offering grants and training that develop entrepreneurial farming.

An innovative state-funded program is rescuing thousands of acres of Massachusetts farmland from suburban sprawl. The program has saved 139 farms from development in its first three years by helping farmers transform their operations into more innovative, profitable ventures. The state effort, called the Massachusetts Farm Viability Program, costs less than many other programs that aim to preserve farmland.

Cindy Bartlett of Richmond, Massachusetts, says her family was not yet to the point of selling their farm when she learned of the program, which saves farmland by investing in farm business development. “But we would have kept plugging away until we got so far behind there would have been no other option,” she said.

Today, however, the three related families that live on income from their 45-acre orchard and retail farm stand breathe easier. “We have a better sense of well being because we’re not borrowing money all time,” Ms. Bartlett said.

What Bartlett Orchards needed was a business plan and some cash to start implementing it. That’s what the Massachusetts program gives farm businesses in exchange for five- and 10-year protective covenants on land that might otherwise end up on the bustling real estate market.

“It helped us create a more balanced approach to preserving farmland by doing something for farmers who can’t survive doing things the way their father and grandfather did them,” said Jay Healy, former Commissioner of Food and Agriculture in Massachusetts and architect of the award-winning program.

Success, Low Cost Attract National Attention
From 1999, when it started as a pilot program, to June 2002, Massachusetts’ Farm Viability Program helped keep 26,568 farmland acres in production as local economic and environmental assets, while keeping good neighbors and quality food producers in communities. The cost of the consultants and farmer-to-farmer mentoring that went into building promising futures for the 139 participating farms? Just $266 per acre.

Communities across the country now are modeling their own farm viability programs after Massachusetts’ successful approach as a way to add needed economic development to their farmland preservation toolkits. Other programs, such as purchasing land development rights from willing farmers — which can cost thousands, not hundreds, of dollars per acre — have kept more than a million acres of the nation’s farmland free of sprawl’s pavement since the 1980s.

But in most cases, family farms that sell their development rights still need help switching to more profitable markets than the mass production food system that undercut their viability in the first place. Massachusetts’ Farm Viability Program meets that need by recognizing it’s not just the land that is at stake; so is a way of life that enriches whole communities.

“Farms are often overlooked because they are marbled into the local scene,” Mr. Healy said. And like a steak without marbling, communities can lose their tenderness and special flavor without the quality of life that farm families and farmland provide.

Local Products, Local Pride
Local people clearly relish that local flavor. In western Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley, for example, it’s clear that restaurants and grocery stores are proud to carry the local Diemand Farm brand of turkey, chicken, and eggs. The second-generation farm, which sells to 110 food businesses within a radius of just 50 miles, is a highlighted feature on menus, advertising circulars, and popular “Be a Local Hero. Buy Local.” promotions.

Indeed it was largely this local flavor — from Diemand Farm’s freshly made turkey pot pies to friendships made over 60 years of daily deliveries — that Massachusetts was saving when it put $40,000 into the business plan that the Diemand family developed under the Farm Viability Program.

“This money allowed us to get a jump on putting things in place that would have taken years to do,” said Peter Diemand, who runs the farm with his sisters Faith and Ann. They put the money into refrigeration and packaging equipment for their meat processing work. That freed them up to invest their own money into a commercial kitchen, where they now make the pot pies and other higher value products out of some of their meats.

It’s part of the constant innovation and perpetual entrepreneurship required of farms that do not have the money or desire to compete with large-scale, Wal-Mart-style production and sales operations. Peter Diemand learned how tough that is in the 1980s when his farm was much less diverse.

“It looked hopeless in the 1980s when we sold only eggs and we had a lot of competition from out of state,” he said. Diemand Farm was losing markets because larger farms produce in such high volumes that they could charge much less for their eggs.

The Diemands stayed in business by adding turkey and chicken to the products they offered their customers. The Farm Viability grant helped them take further steps toward keeping and expanding that customer base with high quality, locally produced products that now are in more demand than ever.

“There’s a real, growing interest in neighbors supporting neighbors that makes a big difference,” he said.

Sharing the Wealth of Knowledge
There’s also a growing agricultural entrepreneur network in Massachusetts through which farmers are helping other farmers learn about new markets. Cindy Bartlett and Pete Diemand, for example, might eventually become mentors in the Farm Viability Program, sitting down with new applicants to share their stories.

Farmer-to-farmer mentoring is a hallmark of the Massachusetts program. Real-life learning can be even more helpful than book learning to farm entrepreneurs, said program coordinator Craig Richov. “Anyone who participates can have a mentor — someone who was successful in diversifying their farm — come and talk about setting up their kitchen, food handling regulations, labeling, and marketing ideas.”

Program architect Jay Healy said the farm mentors often command more respect than consultants with university degrees: “Farmers who have done it drive up with a new pickup.”

Patty Cantrell directs the Institute’s new entrepreneurial agriculture program and is producing the groundbreaking Seeds of Prosperity conference in Thompsonville, Michigan. You can reach her at patty@mlui.org. The conference, which is scheduled for November 11 - 13, will present Jay Healy, the founder of the Massachusetts Farm Viability Program, as a guest speaker. Complete information on the Seeds of Prosperity conference is available at http://www.mlui.org/sop/index.asp.

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