Save This Farm
Community effort saves historical Massachusetts farmland from development.
While searching for more permanent farmland, Jeremy Barker-Plotkin of Simple Gifts Farm tended 5 acres in Belchertown, Massachusetts on land managed by The New England Small Farm Institute (NESFI). The 100 or so acre parcel, as Jeremy estimates, served an an incubator for small start-up farms in western Massachusetts. The tillable acreage was split between several farms when Simple Gifts lived there, and is now part of The Pioneer Valley Grain CSA.
Simple Gifts, co-owned by Jeremy Barker-Plotkin and Dave Tepfer, had an eye out for a new place to farm. One day, Jeremy and his wife were driving down Pine Street in North Amherst and saw Don Gallager pounding in a sign that read “Save this farm.”
Don was then co-President of the North Amherst Community Farm (NACF) Initiative, a group of citizens who had come together to raise the $1.2 million needed to buy the Dziekanowski farm, one of the last working farms in North Amherst.
The roughly 35-acre plot is situated just a mile from The University of Massachusetts down heavily trafficked North Pleasant street, surrounded mostly by student housing complexes. Without NACF efforts, the land almost surely would have been sold and developed to match its surroundings.
“We never would have been able to afford the land on our own,” said Jeremy.
Even NACF wasn’t able to come up with the full amount. NACF took advantage of the Massachusetts Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program (APR) , a program designed to encourage land-owners to preserve farmland by offering a $10,000/acre sum exchanged for an easement agreement that keeps the land permanently protected from development. They also benefited from the state-funded, but town-operated Community Preservation Act. Another large chunk of money came from selling small parcels of the property. Even so, the collaborative was only able to come up with about half of the $1.2 million mark. They took out a mortgage on the remainder.
It was enough to get Simple Gifts on the land in 2006.
“They closed in July, and we started farming in April,” laughed Jeremy. “I guess we didn’t really know if it was going to work out, but it turned out okay.”
That first year they grew about 9 acres of vegetables, enough for a market and a 100 member CSA.
“We kind of colonized a small part of the land,” Jeremy recalled, “with an abandoned farm all around us.”
Once NACF had officially procured the land, there was still a lease agreement to be worked out between the trust now responsible for the farm’s mortgage, and the farmers now responsible for the land’s production.
The lease agreement was set up as a kind of series of phases, Jeremy explained. “What we’re working towards is a 99-year lease, where we own all the buildings, but not the land itself.”
The interim lease agreement started with phase one: a renewable 5-year lease where the land trust (NACF) owns all the buildings. The initial agreement was that Simple Gifts’ lease payments would continue to pay the mortgage, leaving the farmers with a hefty $2300/ month rent. Through the help of non-profit group Equity Trust, the monthly rent is now $900. The farm owns any buildings or improvements they make to the property.
The plan is that this payment will go down once the 99 year lease is put into action.
“The idea is that in phase two, our phase one lease payments will go retroactively towards buying the existing buildings, ” Jeremy clarified.
The original buildings include four barns in various states of functionality, and the main farmhouse. Jeremy and Dave each have a house on the far end of the property where they live with their families. These buildings are not part of the lease agreement, and are fully owned by the respective families.
Today, Simple Gifts has a little over 15 acres in vegetable production, as well as an expanding livestock operation, including chickens, sheep, pigs, a herd of beef cattle and a pair of oxen. Dave oversees the livestock and plans cover crop rotations while Jeremy runs the vegetable side of the business.
“At Simple Gifts, the foresight of a handful of individuals helped the farm to become an agricultural, educational, and community resource,” said Jeremy. “What we want to do is provide people with more of an idea of where food comes from and how land can be used. We’re an example of that right here in town.”