Affordable, available land is only one challenge for aspiring. Island farmers

The Farming Challenge

by John Abrams

More and more, there are young, highly motivated people interested in farming as a livelihood. On the Vineyard, the limiting factor is the high cost of land, right? I thought so. And I thought I knew the answer: placing permanent affordability restrictions on good agricultural land so it could only be sold for its value as productive cropland. Such restrictions have been key to the Vineyard’s increasingly successful affordable housing movement.

Turns out I was wrong about this. It’s really not so much about the land.

According to the draft Island Plan, about 40% of the land on the Vineyard is already permanently protected open space. This is a “remarkable testament to generations of efforts by conservation groups, towns, individual property owners, and the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank,” the draft says. Much of this should be preserved as “wilderness” to ensure sufficient habitat and bio-diversity. But other parts, some suitable for crops and some (much more, in fact) for pasturing livestock, could be converted to agricultural use. There are currently roughly 1800 acres in food production, but there could be thousands more.

But how would some enterprising aspiring farmer come by some of this land?

Adam Moore, the executive director of Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, tells me they are emphasizing agriculture as part of the means to satisfy their purpose of maintaining the rural character of the Island. Some of the properties they own have prime agricultural soils; they are making these available for farming. They have land in both West Tisbury and Chilmark for which they are willing to negotiate five to ten year leases. Some of their properties, like Native Earth Farm and Brookside, have specific conservation restrictions on them to encourage farming.

And James Lengyel, the executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Commission, has more news. They, too, have properties available. Some of the restrictions on their properties actually require that they be used for farming. They lease property for $10 an acre per year, and provide leases for up to nine years. James points out that even if soils are good, these properties are not always suitable–they may not have a water supply, they may not be located where someone can live, and they may be covered with trees. But he went so far as to say that if someone came to the Land Bank, having identified a wooded property with prime soils, the Commissioners might decide to pay to clear it, and they would entertain proposals to do other improvements, too, and would approve them if they felt it was in the long-term public interest to do so.

Recently Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation personnel spoke to Scott Soares, the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture (MDAR) Commissioner, about the possibilities of funding assistance for new farms getting underway. The Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) Program offers a non-development alternative to farmers and other owners of agricultural land who are faced with a decision regarding future use of their property. It pays farmland owners the difference between the “fair market value” and the “agricultural value” of their farmland in exchange for a permanent deed restriction which precludes any use of the property that will have a negative impact on its agricultural viability.

Vineyarders appear to share a tremendous collective desire to encourage local agriculture for its benefits to our economy, our community, our health, and our souls. Although the agricultural re-birth of the past decade or two is robust, it still doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, so to speak. If there’s sufficient land available, and interest runs high, then what’s missing?
Three things, perhaps.

The first is the lack of processing facilities, especially for meat, although the Island Grown Initiative’s Mobile Processing Unit for chickens is a great first step in the right direction. Pasture land for meat production is more forgiving than crop land, and more widely available, but the processing infrastructure must be accessible, and regulations, which are designed for large- scale farming, must be adjusted to work for small farms. The second is capital.

Increased consumer demand for good local food is a powerful economic driver, but we also need supportive investors like the one who helped to put Andrew Woodruff’s Whippoorwill Farm CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) on firm footing. Getting started is tough, and expensive.

But maybe the biggest impediment is more abstract. I don’t know much about farming, but I know enough to know that what Jim Athearn of Morning Glory Farm says is true: “It’s a hard life.”

He oughta know. Therein may lie the rub. And the biggest challenge of all.