Preserving the last of Bay State farmland

The owner of a dusty field in the center of this Cape Cod town had hoped that 440 condominiums would sprout up on his land. But now, corn and green beans are growing instead.

Since the 1930s the Veg-Acres farm had produced tons of vegetables each year. But in the early '70s the farm was sold, and cultivation was stopped. Two years ago, the new owner, a developer, had laid plans to build condos and a golf course on the rich soil.

Although the property is as flat as a Kansas wheat field and the topsoil is as much as four feet deep, the land - like much of the real estate on Cape Cod - was worth much more for its development potential than as farmland.

But this spring the farm won a reprieve. After an 11-year lapse, the largest farm on Cape Cod (now called Windstar Farm) is again producing fresh vegetables - thanks to a program designed to preserve Massachusetts' agricultural heritage.

Under terms of the state's Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) program, farm owner Edward L. Britt sold the land's development rights to the state for $990,000. In return, the state was guaranteed that the land will never be developed or used for any purpose other than farming.

Since the APR program began in 1977, the state has bought development rights to 104 farms, locking up more than 10,000 acres across the commonwealth. In most cases, the farmer was paid the difference between the land's agricultural value and its development value. So far, the program has cost $20 million.

Tim Storrow, chief of the state's Bureau of Land Use, says ''no area of the state is immune from development potential. Real estate is booming.'' And farmland is being gobbled up at a furious pace.

During the past 40 years, almost three-fourths of the state's 2 million acres of farmland have been paved over and built up into houses and shopping centers, high-technology centers and parking lots.

''There is good reason to preserve (farmland), and even to commit public funds to the program,'' Mr. Storrow says. For instance, Massachusetts imports 90 percent of its food, sending $3 billion each year to agriculture-producing states.

While Massachusetts farms will never make the state self-sufficient, he says, it's ''important to keep what land we have as an option.'' The program promotes a more diverse economy, Storrow says, and provides fresher produce to consumers.

Beyond that, he says, there are important environmental and ''quality of life'' justifications for preserving the open land.

Before the state buys development rights to a farm, APR administrators judge the farm on the basis of several criteria. A major consideration is soil quality , Storrow says. ''We want to preserve good land.'' State assessors take soil samples to try to determine the farm's long-term viability.

APR assessors also weigh the ''degree of threat'' each farm faces, he says. This may include whether the land is zoned for nonagricultural uses, whether the farmer is nearing retirement, and whether the farmer's children intend to sell the land rather than farm it. ''We deal with a lot of elderly farmers,'' Storrow says. After the state buys the development rights to the land, the farm's appraised value and the property taxes drop, as do eventual inheritance taxes - enabling heirs to maintain the homestead.

APR assessors also examine the farm's environmental benefits - whether it protects an aquifer or offers refuge to wildlife. And they consider the farm's historical value.

Since the program began, the Bureau of Land Use has received almost 450 applications. Only about one applicant in four is successful. Other states, including New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, have similar programs.

Windstar Farm in Sandwich was a choice candidate for preservation: The soil quality and the degree of threat were working in its favor. Although Mr. Britt, the erstwhile condominium developer, says he never expected to be a farmer, he appears to be enthusiastic about the farm.

After a plan to build the condominiums fell through, Britt says, he was approached by conservationist who recommended the APR program for preserving the farm's 220 acres.

''In the long run, I could have made a lot of money in condos,'' Britt says. But with virtually no farming competition on the Cape, and with a growing market for produce, he sees the farm as a very good business venture.

''There will certainly never be another farm like it on Cape Cod,'' he says.

Britt is not working the farm himself. He leased it to recent agricultural school graduates Matthew Dustin and Bruce Baldwin.

Mr. Dustin says Windstar Farm offers a ''fantastic opportunity'' for farming because of its flat land, extensive irrigation system, and rich soil. Although only about half the land was cultivated this year, he says he expects the farm to yield 5,000 bushels of corn, several hundred bushels of green beans and peas, and pumpkins and squash in the fall.

In five years, he says, the farm should yield more than 20,000 bushels of corn and as many as 1,500 baskets of tomatoes. Dustin also plans to restore the farm's enormous greenhouse and, eventually, to grow nursery stock and house plants.

About as far away from Windstar Farm as you can get and still be in Massachusetts is Frank Wolf's 275-acre dairy farm overlooking the Berkshires in Great Barrington.

Mr. Wolf says he intends to keep the farm in the family. His father farmed it before him, and now, he says, ''I've got two boys coming on, and a son-in-law.'' The farm has been in the family since his grandfather bought it sometime around 1860.

With the housing market blossoming all over the Berkshires, he says, he has had several offers on the property. He applied to the APR program because he has such a large investment tied up in land that he decided to ''let the state take part of (the investment.)''

But, while farmers pocket a lot of money and get to keep the farm, what are taxpayers getting for their investments?

Storrow at the state Bureau of Land Use says taxpayers receive a lot for their money, even though the benefits - fresher produce, a diversified economy, and environmental preservation - are somewhat intangible.

The program has received ''encouraging'' public support, he says. In some cases, towns have contributed a portion of the money needed to purchase development rights to a local farm.

For instance, the Stone Tavern Farm in Sudbury was recently accepted into the APR program. Its location, next door to a Raytheon Company laboratory, pushed the appraised development rights up over $10,000 per acre - twice what the APR assessors felt they could justify paying for the property.

But Sudbury residents voted 373 to 85 in a town meeting to preserve the farm by making up the difference between the market-rate appraisal and the farm's agricultural value. The town paid owner William Stone $330,000, and the state contributed $280,000.

Storrow says other towns have done the same thing, although on a much smaller scale. Under this type of arrangement, the town becomes a joint holder of the development rights and has veto power if the owner ever started the complex process of trying to buy back the development rights, he says.

But doesn't the APR program limit development and lower a town's potential tax base? For instance, would condos bring Sandwich more tax revenue than Windstar Farm?

Sandwich Selectman Bruce Stanford says Proposition 21/2, a tax-cutting measure passed in 1980, has limited the amount of taxes a town may collect from property owners. Property tax is also limited by the town.

Tax revenue from the new condos might serve to reduce the tax bill for all Sandwich residents by a few cents. But Mr. Stanford says the condos would not bring the town more money. In fact, 440 new families with children could be a greater expense to the town, burdening the school system and other town services , he says.

According to Bureau of Land Use records, much of the money paid to farmers under the APR program has been spent on making farm improvements, purchasing machinery, and funding the farmers' retirement.

Donald and Linda Bolton of Deerfield used the money to help pay off their mortgage. They bought their 94-acre dairy farm in 1980. ''We borrowed at a high interest rate,'' Mr. Bolton says. But at that time, the market price for milk was high, too.

Since then, he says, milk prices have gone down while expenses have gone up. The Boltons applied to the APR program two years ago and eventually received $63 ,000. ''We didn't see a cent,'' he says. The money went straight to the mortgage company.

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