Audit: State’s program to protect farmland needs better monitoring

  • Jeremy Barker-Plotkin, who is a co-owner of Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst, drives a pedal-powered tractor called a Culticycle at the farm, Wednesday.

  • Matt Biskup, co-owner of Queens Greens farm in Amherst, pounds ground posts for a temporary high tunnel to cover Spinach Tuesday afternoon.

Staff Writer
Published: 8/25/2018 12:19:55 AM

AMHERST — When one Massachusetts farmer wanted to add a new building for a brewery operation that required a swap of farmland, the state’s Department of Agricultural Resources had to approve the project because a portion of the farm was already in the Agricultural Preservation Restriction program.

But, according to what the farmer said, the state agency took too long to OK the land swap, and because the delay was putting his brewery business at risk, he opted to build elsewhere on his property.

Such efforts to enhance farm enterprises by bringing in additional revenue through agri-tourism or solar projects have been complicated by the rules of the state’s APR program. This and the lack of communication from the state to farmers have been identified as issues in an audit report released this week by state Auditor Suzanne M. Bump

Bump’s report urges the state agency that oversees the APR program to both increase transparency in decision-making and enhance its monitoring of farmland that has been protected since the program was established in 1977.

“The processes at the agency are very opaque and lack consistency, making it hard for farmers to enter the program, navigate within it, and pass it on to another farmer,” Bump said in a statement, noting that many of the program’s policies have been adopted without public input, and their decision-making is often unexplained.

The audit comes after visits to 60 farms across the state, including ones in the Hampshire County communities of Amherst, Hadley, Southampton and Cummington.

The APR program allows the state to pay a farmer the difference between the market value of the land and the agricultural value of the land. In exchange, the farmer commits to keep the uses of the property focused on agriculture. Any future construction or excavation on the protected land must be approved by the state agency.

As of June 30, 2017, the state’s Department of Agricultural Resources had entered into 909 APR Program contracts in 13 of the 14 Massachusetts counties, with 14 percent of total farm acreage in the state covered.

Recommendations in the audit include having the Department of Agricultural Resources:

conduct annual monitoring of APR land to ensure it is being used for approved purposes;

expand education opportunities, including a formal training component, to ensure participants know about the program’s requirements;

provide guidelines on how certain program decisions are made to provide greater transparency and predictability in the process;

allow farmers greater flexibility to appeal or withdraw from decisions related to APR Program farmland; and

work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service to ensure the state receives available federal funds for the purchase of farmland.

Confusion, complications

Bump’s audit found that a number of participants in the APR program did not understand its requirements, were not sufficiently monitored for compliance with those requirements, and were unsure of the criteria used by the program’s leadership when making decisions regarding the sale and approved uses of APR land.

Margaret Christie, special projects director at Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, said the APR program has been vital to preserving farmland and protecting farms to the future.

But Christie said agri-tourism and solar projects were not contemplated when the program began, causing complications for some farmers.

“There is a definite need for more communication with farmers who have their land in APR and those who are trying to place their land in the APR,” Christie said.

She notes that some farmers have run into problems when trying to sell properties in the APR program because there is revenue coming from non-related sources, which a subsequent farmer may not be allowed to tap into.

Caroline Pam, who runs The Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland, said she and husband Tim Wilcox have found the APR program easy to navigate and have had no issues with making changes to their property.

“Our experience with getting approval for use of our APR land has been pretty straightforward,” Pam said. “We have had no trouble getting certificates of approval to build a new wash pack barn and solar panels since they're clearly for agricultural use.”

Darryl Williams at the Luther Belden Farm in Hatfield said he is a strong supporter of the program.

“It’s a way to keep land that should be farmed and keep houses off of it,” Williams said, adding that his farm has been in APR land for about 30 years.

Williams ​completed a new barn last year for cows and a new milking system and the Department of Agricultural Resources was good to work with and seems to understand the concerns of farmers. “That approval process, in our opinion, didn’t take too long,” he said.

The state audit found that while many farmers appeared satisfied with the program, others noted challenges because policies are adopted without public input and some of the decisions made aren’t explained. “While on the whole, participants are satisfied with the APR program, it is clear that the Department of Agricultural Resources must do more to ensure it adapts to meet the needs of modern farmers, including accommodating agri-tourism and other revenue-producing opportunities,” Bump said.

Additionally, the audit notes that due to slow application processing by the Department of Agricultural Resources, the state frequently missed out on the opportunity to have the federal government cover half of the purchase cost of APR farmland.

That meant more than $3 million in lost federal funding for the program during the audit period.

Mark Amato, president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, said in a statement that he appreciated the work of the auditor and will work with the state agency to implement recommendations.

“These findings closely mirror the many concerns that have been raised by our members, as well as the results of a survey we conducted of APR landowners last year,” Amato said.

Crestview and Wagner farms in Amherst, Devine, Food Bank and Yarrows farms in Hadley, Fowles Farm in Southampton and Splendor View Farms and Streeter Farm in Cummington are the sites Bump’s office visited.

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