Searching for Land in a Post-Farm Era
An update on our search for Farmland
Since farmland is slim pickings these days, we are doing whatever we can to nail the right property. Drawing a two hour radius from Boston, we decided to drive through and explore small farm communities ourselves, rather than wait to see which properties may pop up through real estate websites like Zillow. And searching for farmland is different than it was, say, 15 years ago. Welcome Google Maps in satellite view! It’s revolutionized anyone’s ability to spot where farms, clusters of farms, and farming communities are located.Enter a caption
Our strategy is basic – we collect addresses along the way, enter the info into an excel sheet, and coordinate a mailing campaign where we literally ask owners if their land is available or if they know of available land. We thought we might even door knock on a few farms that we find particularly beautiful, of course skipping the ones with a “don’t tread on me” flag.
We first explored southeastern MA in towns like Westport and Rehoboth – where landing a farm close to where we are now would make the transition so much easier, and I’d be able to maintain a lot of the local connections I’ve already made. Westport is my dream location; just down the road from Providence, but also with a direct route to Boston. A surprising number of farms dot the landscape with the sea breeze providing for a cool summer. The coastal waters that are still relatively warm in the Fall help moderate and delay the onslaught of winter, extending the fall growing season. Not to mention, the ocean and one of the best beaches in New England! We also checked out Tiverton, Little Compton, and Middletown – and as beautiful as these coastal RI communities are, I didn’t even bother to send out letters, already fearful of the extraordinary high real estate prices.
Then we discovered Connecticut! Poor Connecticut. Rhode Islanders think she is either too far away, or that she is only good for passing through to New York. But northeastern CT is about an hour to both Boston AND Providence! And the region is known as “the last green valley” because it is the last swath of countryside left between Boston and New York City – 77% of its area is forests and farms! In towns like Woodstock, Putnam, and Canterbury, big red barns and old farm houses sit peacefully on gently steeped rolling hills. The different levels of elevation and expansive fields provide those long distant views we don’t often get in Southeastern MA or RI unless we go to the ocean. We collected about 130 farm addresses.
Next, we went out west to the Pioneer Valley of western MA, from Amherst all the way up to the VT and NH border. The Connecticut River is massive and its flood plains are vast, and it’s the reason why the soil is so rich here – thanks to over 10,000 years of this river dumping rich minerals and nutrients into its flood plains. This could be my ocean, should I have to live so far inland. There are many cool things about this valley. The hills are larger and can actually be called small mountains, as they are connected to the Berkshire mountain range. Five prestigious liberal arts colleges provide a youthful boost to the local economy. Holyoke and Springfield are the closest urban centers, with Hartford just 30 minutes southward.
While the region is very white, it’s definitely not Trump country, plus there is Holyoke! Holyoke is the most Puerto Rican city in the mainland, as Boricuas constitute about half of the city’s population and over 80% of its public school students. After the Trump administration’s castigation and abandonment of Puerto Rico, the city and its schools are now being tested with the influx of our newest American refugees. It’s a cool city, built during and for the industrial revolution, almost like a giant city factory, with canals, mills, and streets crisscrossing in an orderly coordinate plane; very different than other New England industrial cities like Worcester or Lowell or Providence, that have city centers with mills that follow meandering rivers, and then streets that web and spiral outwards. Holyoke is soon set to become carbon neutral, as it nears making 100% of its energy from hydro-electric power.
Next we wanted to get a sense of the landscape and farms that exist in the center of Massachusetts, to the west of Worcester. Imagine me sitting at a lone farm stand in the center of Massachusetts!! The rest of my life spent somewhere in the suburbs of Worcester!! I eventually got over any prejudice or misconceptions I had about central Mass when I realized that I had not really ever been there. Back up on my Google maps spaceship, I identified quite a bit of farmland in towns such as in Hardwick, New Braintree, and Brookfield. We were pleasantly surprised to see houses and towns in good condition – for example, we did not see a single abandoned house throughout out trip. And this was definitely farm country! The hills were less broad and more unpredictable than CT’s rolling hills, but this bumpy and hilly, and sometimes rugged, terrain create some awesome ledges, tiny valleys, divots, and corridors. The forests here are dense and impressive. This forest system provides much of the headwater for both the Connecticut and Merrimack rivers, and acts as a giant purification system for the Quabbin reservoir, one of the largest unfiltered water supplies in the United States. Some farms that sit on top of a small hill or on the slope of a small valley not only come with a beautiful view but also a tranquil sense of privacy, as the surrounding tall trees of the dense forest provide the perfect air, noise, and privacy screen. You definitely feel like you’re in your own private valley! Okay, central Mass, now I see you!!
Check out this short video that shows the results of our study.
The research question is: If we were to choose a region, which region has a good amount of farmland, is relatively affordable, within 2 hours of Boston, is not too isolated, has a scenic inspiring landscape, and offers opportunities for education and work for my family (mother, father, sister, sister-in-law, niece)?
And some reflections about our New England farm road trip:
- Most farms have transformed in order to survive. It’s somewhat been a trip down history lane – visiting farms that used to be thriving dairy operations and have now transformed into whatever it takes to stay afloat – whether that be starting gravel or construction businesses, subdividing and selling off lots to development, offering horse riding lessons or running a bed and breakfast.
- Farmland is scarce. Like when I go on Google maps and note that a town has a lot of farmland and is worth visiting, I’m really only talking about maybe 5 to 10 farms that have more than 15 acres of field space. Many farms have been purchased by hobby farmers and retirees, or those who want the good ole farm life without having to depend on the act of farming for income. They often have an agreement with a hay farmer so that their land can be considered in agricultural use and qualify for a major tax reduction. Other beautiful tracts of land have been put into land conservation, and of course this is like a bitter sweet experience – as I’m happy that the land is preserved, but of course jealous that I cannot access it.
- Much of the remaining farmland is not directly being used for food production – Many farms with sizeable fields grow hay, and then they sell their bales to the smaller farms which run horse riding businesses. And not that I have a secret vengeance against hay production or privileged little white girls and their ponies, but this land is not growing what we know we need most – access to healthy food! Other farms that grow hay or corn are growing it to sell to beef or remaining dairy operations. These hay, beef, and horse farms account for about 50% of farmed acres in Massachusetts. But a) they are not being used to directly grow consumable food, b) beef operations are not that efficient or ecologically friendly, and c) hay and corn are most commonly grown in a way that does not cultivate and build healthy soil. Other farms sit abandoned, and I often imagine an extended family not on good terms, or just not ready to come together to let go of its sentimental value, or maybe they’re waiting for the moment with their grandfather passes to come to any decision.
- The competition to buy farmland is present – and farmland real estate prices are higher in New England than any other region in the country. In 2010, the top most expensive farm real estate states were Rhode Island (at $13,600 per acre), New Jersey, Massachusetts, and then Connecticut (at $11,500 per acre), with New Hampshire coming in at # 10. When farmland is up for sale, we know who our competitors are. Aside from other farmers, conservation groups are buying up farmland in order to preserve land from development. Early retirees are buying farms. Rich professionals who can work from home and who may want their children to experience farm life are buying farms. Our bid to start an organic, community-based, social justice-driven, multiple-generation farming project was outbid by a couple seeking out a place for retirement. What do you guess they will be farming? Yes, hay or corn, or subcontracting another farmer to grow hay or corn. And probably the most significant pressure comes from commercial developers who are seeking to cash in by transforming a farm into luxurious residences with great views in bucolic farm-like setting.
-  USDA 2012 Agricultural Census as presented by UMASS Amherst: Center for Agriculture, Food, and the Environment. https://ag.umass.edu/