The choices we make today will determine how our communities will look and where our food will come from in the future.
At no time since the industrialization of farming in the mid-20th century have Americans been as concerned about where their food comes from as they are today. The local and organic food movement that began in the 1960s and picked up speed in the ‘90s at a smattering of seasonal farmers markets has evolved into an entire industry. Farm-to-table fare can be found, and has come to be expected, at just about every halfway decent restaurant in the country. People across the United States are signing up in droves for community supported agriculture shares (CSAs) — which, in addition to produce, can include meat and dairy products, and even things like craft beer and maple syrup. Consumers are demanding to know where their food comes from, and they are making choices based on that information.
It would seem logical, then, that along with our desire for locally grown and produced food — and the better flavors and nutrition that come along with it — that we would be equally concerned about preserving the land where this food is grown. But this isn’t always the case, especially in places like eastern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire, where housing is in demand and real estate prices are high. In the Merrimack Valley, you only need to drive down Route 133 in Andover, Route 110 in Westford or Route 119 in Littleton to see what is becoming of our farmland and open space.
To make matters worse, the issues surrounding land preservation can be complex. Vanessa Johnson-Hall, assistant director of land conservation at Essex County Greenbelt, a nonprofit in Essex that works to help landowners and farmers keep their property out of the hands of developers, says, “Over a third of farmers in Massachusetts are over the age of 65 with no successor. Combine the region’s high real estate prices with the desire these farmers have to retire and get some sort of value for their land — not to mention the fact that a lot of the farmland along the Merrimack River is beautiful — and you have what amounts to a serious problem for open space.”
Legal issues such as real estate transactions, conservation easements and land development rights can also become obstructions when it comes to land conservation. Attorney Richard Cavanaugh, one of the founding partners of the Lowell law firm of Gallagher & Cavanaugh, today runs his own practice, called Common Grow, out of his home in the central Massachusetts town of Petersham. He works with farmers and landowners across Massachusetts, and with federal, state and local agencies, land trusts and planning boards, to help meet the legal requirements necessary to keep farmland in the hands of farmers and the development of open space at a minimum.
Cavanaugh, who was born in Iowa and lived in Littleton, says he has always felt strongly about issues concerning land use and agriculture. “I see myself as a foot soldier in the local food movement,” he says. “I don’t want to see other communities suffer the same fate as Littleton. I use my law degree to that end. I look at what I do as helping local people take charge of their own lives and resources.”
Like many people who change direction in their careers, it was almost by accident that Cavanaugh and his wife, Anne, ended up moving to Petersham, and that Cavanaugh ended up leaving his law firm in Lowell to start Common Grow.
In 2012, the Cavanaughs sold their house in Lowell and Richard took a one-year sabbatical from Gallagher & Cavanaugh so that he and Anne could enroll in The Farm School, a nonprofit educational farm in Athol and Orange that offers a program for adults who want to learn how to farm, as well as programs for kids from visiting schools.
“We weren’t really considering becoming farmers, but we wanted to learn about it. The idea was that we would move back to Lowell after the year was over and buy a condo downtown or something,” Cavanaugh says.
While the Cavanaughs were enrolled at The Farm School, a privately-owned 95-acre parcel in the town of Orange, adjacent to the school, went up for sale. The school needed the extra space and didn’t want to see the land become a housing project, but the asking price was $500,000, way out of its budget. “We came to Rich to see if there was a way we could make it work,” says Ben Holmes, who founded The Farm School in 1989.
The result was the first planned open-space development project in Orange, and the beginnings of what would become Common Grow. “We were able to bring partners together to purchase 75 percent of the 95 acres,” Cavanaugh says.
Some of the money was raised by selling parcels to Farm School employees who were allowed to build modest low-environmental-impact homes on the property. The school has the right of first refusal to buy back the land if the employees want to sell.
Cavanaugh, a member of the Legal Food Hub, a pool of lawyers who work at reduced rates on farming and land issues, also helped the school meet legal requirements for the land, including Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection standards for its septic systems.
After their experience at The Farm School, the Cavanaughs opted to live permanently in central Massachusetts, where they would be closer to many of the farmers they wanted to help.
One of Cavanaugh’s recent projects is a beautiful 230-acre farm across the street from his house. He helped the East Quabbin Land Trust and the Petersham Conservation Commission raise money to buy the land at market price, then looked for a buyer who wanted to farm it and would buy the property at a reduced price.
The parcel is now called Rice’s Roots Farm. It’s owned and farmed by Conor Rice, who grows a variety of produce that he sells via a CSA program and at local stores. Originally from Andover, Rice, who is in his early 30s, worked as an apprentice farmer for several years and is thrilled to have a farm of his own. “I recognize the importance and the privilege of being a steward of this land,” he says.
Back in the Merrimack Valley, Essex County Greenbelt is fulfilling a role similar to Cavanaugh’s at Common Grow.
At the end of 2017, Essex County Greenbelt and several regional partners were awarded a $1,050,000 grant funded by the United States Department of Agriculture and distributed by the Regional Conservation Commission.
“Right now there are more than 3,000 acres of unprotected land along the Merrimack River in Essex County,” Greenbelt’s Johnson-Hall says. “We plan to use the money to buy conservation easements on local farmland so it can’t be developed. There are lots of young farmers looking for land that’s affordable.”
One of those farmers is Chris Horne. A Lowell native who still lives in the city, Horne, who is in his late 20s, has an economics degree from UMass Lowell, is an alumnus of The Farm School and a former FoodCorps member who spent several years working for Mill City Grows, an urban farming nonprofit in Lowell. Today the owner of Horne Family Farms in Londonderry, N.H., Horne grows salad greens that are served by several area restaurants. He also works weekends as a bartender at The Old Court in Lowell to help make ends meet. Not surprisingly, The Old Court is one of the restaurants that serves Horne’s greens in their salads.
“The time is right to be growing and selling quality local produce,” Horne says. “Restaurants are increasingly dependent on it for their marketing and business plans. It’s what people want to eat.”
Horne says he became interested in agriculture because of health problems in his family caused by lifestyle and diet issues, including a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables. And although his education would allow him to work a less physically demanding job that pays more, he says farming is the right thing for him.
“There’s no feeling better than harvesting something you’ve grown,” Horne says. “My skill set fits really well with working outside. It’s a lot of hard labor, but there’s something special about feeding people and being connected to the land.”
Rice’s Roots Farm
The Farm School
Essex County Greenbelt
Horne Family Farms