Community Farmland Connections through a Targeted GIS Identification and Outreach Approach

Final Report for CNE12-100

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2012: $14,953.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Jennifer Hashley
Trustees of Tufts College / New Entry Sustainable Farming Project
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Project Information

Summary:

With a resurgence of interest in local food and farming, accessible farmland remains a key barrier to small-scale beginning farmer enterprises. Building on a 2011 pilot project, New Entry used local partners, GIS technologies, and our farmland database and land matching programs to identify smaller parcels of land (2-5 acres each) in six communities in eastern Massachusetts. We developed a guide for other organizations/community groups who would like to undertake similar GIS mapping efforts, as well as a guide for beginning farmers who want to start farming on multiple of these small newly identified peri-urban and suburban plots.

Project Objectives:

Objective 1. Work with six towns to map available agricultural land

 

We completed work mapping and performing landowner outreach with six towns in eastern Massachusetts (Topsfield, Groton, Concord, Westport, Dartmouth, and Lincoln). Work was done with Topsfield, Groton, and Concord in 2012 and with Westport, Dartmouth, and Lincoln in 2013.

 

We also worked with agricultural communities in Hamden County, which includes 23 towns. We mapped farmland resources in each town in the county and created a land/landowner database for each town to have available as they move forward with outreach. This process began with the town of Ludlow in April 2013 and efforts were renewed again beginning in April 2014. The work shifted focus away from meeting with each town individually to hosting regional meetings with the local agricultural commissions as well as hosting regional landowner outreach events and workshops. Our goal is to continue to make progress with several regional landowner outreach events before year end.

 

Objective 2. In each town, work with at least five landowners who wish to make their land available to a farmer.

 

We found that landowners (on average) tend to learn about the process of leasing land, but delay coming forward immediately to make their land available, preferring to learn more and consider their options. Our experience has demonstrated that the average landowner waits approximately six months to a year before coming forward and expressing a serious interest in farmland leasing. As a result of the fall 2012 work in Topsfield, Groton, and Concord, we received phone calls, e-mails, or Landowner Applications in summer/fall of 2013 from 14 landowners. We have recently received new contacts from landowners and expect that the number of respondents from the 2013 workshops will continue to increase over time. Many towns indicated interest in hosting landowner workshops on a regular basis (every year or every other year), which will continue to generate additional interest.

 

Objective 3. Increase the agricultural land base in each community by 10-50 acres.

 

We have found that the majority of opportunities that resulted from these workshops are slightly smaller than expected. Landowners with properties containing 2 acres or less, of usable farmland area, have come forward more than any other group. Thus, although we have gotten a fair response from landowners, the acreage increase in the agricultural land base in each community has not been significant. However, the size of these available parcels has worked out well for a number of the beginning farmers that we work with and a few have already been matched with properties identified through this work, all of which are 1 acre or less in size.  As this work continues and the model proves successful, we anticipate landowners with additional acreage may become interested in making their land available, particularly if there are property tax benefits associated with larger parcels.

 

Objective 4. Development of a field-tested tool-kit for community organizations wishing to undertake this work.

 

Stories and results of the project were compiled and developed into a resource guide for community organizations looking to create GIS mapping and landowner outreach projects in their communities. The guide includes step-by-step instructions on the process of using GIS and specific public data layers, connecting these parcels to assessors/ownership information, and the process of collaborating with key organizations in a community to host information sessions. Specific examples from towns we have worked with to-date are provided throughout the Resource Guide.

 

Objective 5. Develop an Enterprise Planning Guide for producers using a small parcel approach.

 

Operating multiple small plots in different geographic locations creates challenges and requires a unique set of management skills for a new farmer. New Entry developed a resource guide to Best Practices for Farming Multiple Plots which describes different approaches to operating a farm business in multiple locations, considerations, enterprise recommendations, and other suggestions. The Guide includes examples from farms successfully using this approach. The Guide is posted to New Entry’s website and has been distributed to beginning farmers in the New Entry and BFN/Mass network.

Introduction:

With a resurgence of interest in local food and farming, accessible farmland remains a key barrier to small-scale beginning farmer enterprises. In Massachusetts, 90% of farmland lost since 1982 is due to residential development concentrated in the I-495 belt and Pioneer Valley. These are the same areas where farmland is sought by new farmers today. Building on a 2011 pilot project, New Entry used local partners, GIS technologies, and our farmland database and land matching programs to identify smaller parcels of land (2-5 acres each) connected to homeowners or commercial interests in six peri-urban communities.

 

Typically, such plots have not been considered part of the farmable land base, yet are well-suited to beginning producers wanting to farm and direct market in their own communities. New Entry worked in partnership with local community land trusts, agricultural commissions, town officials, and others to use GIS technology and various data layers to identify parcels of land suitable for farming and reached out to landowners to encourage them to make their land available to interested local producers. Community workshops explained the specifics of leasing land and farming on small plots to all parties. Zoning and other concerns were addressed by partners to facilitate each community’s approval process. New Entry and local partners helped match landowners to land seekers, addressing access, infrastructure needs, leasing terms, and any factors that arose. Resource Guides were developed for communities, landowners and new farmers in these and other communities to expand the process statewide. An online database continued to track the land base in each community, interested farmers, and successful matches. This initiative has helped address a key barrier to the development of more sustainable community food systems.

Research

Materials and methods:

Each year, 3-8 farmers graduate from New Entry’s incubator training farms who would like to find small parcels of farmland near urban areas to rent so they can continue their new farm businesses in our region. With a lack of available farmland in the area (much of the prime farmland soil in our area has been developed for residential lots), we needed to think “outside the box” to support new and beginning farmers. Many towns in this heavily developed, suburban Boston area have large-lot requirements for residential parcels which may be suitable for farming. When trying to find property owners to approach to inquire if they would make their land available for agriculture, we realized a simple screening method for parcel size was not enough to determine if the property could adequately be farmed. We also needed to include a screen (filter for various characteristics) for soil type, land use type, and a buffer for wetlands. We began by engaging student interns to enter each address individually to research the property on the NRCS soil-mapping database (web soil survey). This process worked, but progressed painfully slowly. Utilizing Geographic Information Systems proved to be a much faster and a more effective way to find suitable properties.

 

 

 

Using various data layers through publicly available GIS information and additional soils and other land characteristics from NRCS helped identify suitable parcels to conduct further research. Yet, identifying the properties is only one part of the process. Reaching out to the landowners is another significant step in increasing the utilization of farmland. By working with individual communities, we used town-provided Assessor’s data to identify property owners and their contact information and then “referenced” this data with local knowledge (and politics) to assist in methods that would best reach their community members, while offering them the valuable service of mapping their farmland. We primarily partnered with agricultural commissions in Massachusetts in order to find underutilized farmland and connect its landowners to farmers who could potentially use their land. The steps and methods used varied slightly among different communities, but the general structure of the project included the following steps:

 

 

 

1)      New Entry presents and introduction to the Community Farmland Connections project at a local Agricultural Commission meeting. ManyAgricultural Commissions are happy topartner with us on this project, as it increasesawareness of agricultural issues intheir town and helps farmers in their area.They also are happy to have assistance inmapping their farmland resources. New Entry would provide an introductory overview of the project, process, and suggest ways to be involved in the project and answer any questions.

 

2)      The Agricultural Commission, if interested, invites New Entry back for further work/follow-up. Many Agricultural Commissions see this work as aiding their mission. However, some Agricultural Commissions are not interested in working with an outside group. Those interested groups would review the project internally, develop a list of questions, and then invite New Entry staff to attend another meeting (or two) to move the project forward.

 

3)      New Entry identifies properties in town with prime soils of 2 acres or more that are not currently used for agriculture. Identification of these properties is done through the spatial analysis process that is described in the “Guide to the Geo-spatial Analysis” section of the Community Farmland Connections GIS Mapping Guide.

 

4)      The Agricultural Commission reviews the map and accompanying data. The Agricultural Commission has on-the-ground information about the specific land parcels and their owners that were identified and can offer perspective on the results of the analysis. New Entry can create additional maps with the commissions by identifying the specific types of agriculture already taking place in the town, as well as the areas that could potentially be used for farming.

 

5)      The Agricultural Commission strategizes with New Entry about community outreach. The Ag Comm members know their town the best and can think about what kinds of outreach strategies and educational initiatives are needed and will be best received in the community.

 

6)      Conduct community outreach and an informational event. New Entry and the Agricultural Commission prepare outreach materials and organize a landowner educational forum. Often, Ag Comm members decide to endorse a letter written and sent by New Entry to the landowners of the identified farmland to invite them to a meeting about agriculture in their community and how to lease land to a farmer. A public meeting is held and presentations made to prospective landowners on the opportunities to make their land available to farming, considerations involved (types of enterprises, visual impact, zoning issues, tax benefits, and other information). Often, New Entry organized a panel of new farmers seeking land to present to the community and describe the type of operation they were interested pursuing on local farmland. We also included several landowner panels as part of the community outreach process to share their experiences in leasing land to a farmer.

Research results and discussion:

As noted in our 2013 Annual Report, we found that the Agricultural Commissions are actually some of the main beneficiaries of this project. Researching available farmland beyond the “obvious” currently farmed parcels gives them a feeling of accomplishment and additional knowledge and motivation to learn more about available farmland resources/inventory in their community. The maps generated and data products developed through the project gives them community information to use for other programs. All of the Agricultural Commissions we have worked with will continue to use the products that we have provided, and the majority have decided to continue landowner outreach on an annual or regular basis.

 

Although we have found that the land/landowners that are coming forward to lease land to farmers are slightly smaller than we had originally thought (2-5 acres vs. 0-2 acres), we have realized that this is still beneficial to many new/beginning farmers. With parcels of this size, it is unrealistic for landowners to charge a land rental fee that would be unmanageable for a new farmer who is working on such a small scale. Additionally, in the peri-urban areas farmers are using SPIN or multiple plot farming which works well with smaller parcels of 0-2 acres. Accordingly, although we have achieved a smaller acreage increase than originally anticipated, the outcome is a success for the beginning farmer populations that we serve.

 

With regard to the GIS Mapping Guide that we developed as a result of our learnings from this process, we have already shared it with the Manadnock Conservancy, who is interested in using it to guide a portion of an upcoming project in Southern New Hampshire in collaboration with partners in New Chesire County, UNH Coop Extension, and Land for Good. They will be conducting a research study looking at availability of farmland in the region owned by non-farming farmers.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

A feature article (front page) of the 12/3/12 Boston Globe featuring the innovative land matching program and one of our successful Groton matches was published. Additional inquiries have been received as a result of the article.

 

In Topsfield, we sent a press release about the workshop which was picked up in the local paper, the Tri-town Transcript. The host, Alfalfa Farm, also put the information about their workshop in their newsletter.

 

We held two workshops on “leasing your land to a farmer”, one in Concord and the other in Topsfield. The Topsfield workshop was attended by a reporter from the Tri-town Transcript who wrote another article about the workshop.

 

We recently finalized a GIS mapping guide subtitled “A guide to the use of GIS mapping for discovering underutilized farmland and expanding its use for agriculture.” This guide has been shared with land conservation organizations throughout New England interested in conducting similar projects.

We also completed a Best Practices for Farming Multiple Plots guide, which covers specific factors farmers need to think about when renting multiple parcels of land from non-farming landowners or others, including advantages and disadvantages of this type of land tenure and how a farm business can be successful in the long term through this land tenure method. This guide also provides examples of other farmers who are successfully farming on multiple small plots.

 

Both of the above mentioned guides are available through New Entry’s online Farmer Resource Library, the Beginning Farmer Network of Massachusetts website, and have been distributed and/or posted via other farming-related listserves and websites.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Throughout the project period, we provided ongoing technical assistance and farmland matching support to over 55 farmers seeking available farmland.  A summary of our activities and accomplishments is presented here:

Feb 2012: We presented information at two regional agricultural commission meetings, one in Franklin County and one in Berkshire County. We presented the information about our pilot project (land outreach) in Groton and let other agricultural commissions know that we are looking for more pilot communities. We found that at the meeting, many agricultural commissions seemed interested in working with us because of the map of agricultural land/parcels that they would receive through participation in the project.

 

March 2012: We presented information at the Massachusetts Association of Land Conservation Trusts annual meeting with two other presenters, Kathy Ruhf (Land for Good) and Pete Westover (Mass Association of Ag Coms). Kathy talked about different types of lease agreements, Pete showed examples of agricultural enterprises on conservation land, and Becca Weaver (SARE project PI) presented the Town of Groton project that mapped agricultural lands and matched farmers to under-utilized agricultural land. At that session were the chairs of the Concord Agricultural Committee and the Lincoln Agricultural Commission. They both came forward after the presentation inviting New Entry to work with their communities.

 

April 2012: The Topsfield Agricultural Commission contacted New Entry because they were interested in learning more about the project. After presenting information at one of their meetings, they were very excited to implement the project in Topsfield. We worked with them for the entire summer, attending one meeting a month with the Ag Commission. We piloted the use of Google Earth with our Arc-Map generated maps in order to have an engaged agricultural inventory process with the agricultural commission.

 

May 2012: We began to work with representatives from the Southeastern Massachusetts Agricultural Partnership (SEMAP) and The Trustees of Reservations (TTOR) in Southeastern Mass because they were interested in doing this type of project in their region of Massachusetts. They decided that Westport and Dartmouth would be ideal communities to work with because of the dual nature of the high-development pressure and the active agricultural community. During the summer, they tried to figure out times to present the work to key stakeholders in the agricultural community there, but did not find a time, as the Agricultural Commissions were very busy during the summer.

 

June 2012: We met with the Concord Agricultural Committee to present the project that we could partner with them. They were interested in seeing the map of our agricultural analysis of their town, but were more excited about hosting the agricultural land leasing workshop in their town, rather than the inventorying process itself, which they had already put some effort into in the community and had several land maps already developed.

 

We also presented the project to the Lincoln Agricultural Commission (at a separate meeting). They were excited about the project, and had had already mapped much of their town’s agricultural land and utilized it as a result. Therefore, the agricultural commission chair, Becca Weaver, and the conservation commission GIS technician met together to decide on the best way forward. The Ag Commission Chair determined it was best to wait until the new parcel data layer was ready for the Town of Lincoln before a new mapping analysis was conducted. The Lincoln Ag Commission also had resources to hire a student intern to help with outreach work.

 

Interviews were also done over the summer with farmers who use multiple small plots for agricultural production. A draft of a guide was written at the end of the summer based on their experiences.

 

July 2012: We met with the Topsfield Agricultural Commission in the offices of the Topsfield Agricultural Fair Buildings with a projector screen hooked up to the computer processing Google Earth images and zoomed in and out to all the identified properties on the map. The commission members then identified who was doing what and where in their community and identified parcels that offered opportunity for new agriculture. In the end, we had a map of available land and active land. We chose to send letters to the landowners of the properties that were not already in active agricultural use.

 

August 2012: We prepared mailings for the towns of Topsfield and Concord. Concord decided that they wanted to send a letter to everyone in town who was identified with the GIS analysis, conservation easement properties, and people enrolled in the Agricultural Use property tax program. For Topsfield, we used the revised list of landowners that we generated after the Google Earth inventory process.

 

September 2012: We sent the mailings to the Concord and Topsfield Residents. We invited them for two different workshops, one planned for Topsfield on October 22nd, and one in Concord for October 10th. During September we also tabled at Concord’s Ag day and wrote a blog post for the Concord Sustainable Food Systems Network for outreach purposes. In Topsfield, we sent a press release about the workshop which was picked up in the local paper, the Tri-town Transcript (see attachment). The host, Alfalfa Farm, also put the information about their workshop in their newsletter.

 

Pete Westover also organized a meeting between New Entry and the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission who was working on putting together their food security plan for the Pioneer Valley. After meeting, we all decided that it would be extremely productive to include the mapping project in their food security plan as an implementation step for one of their goals, “Grow more food.” We decided that we would map all of Hamden County and get all the towns involved at once to look over their respective maps and hold a regional workshop. The meeting with the agricultural community was scheduled for January 2013 and the workshop on leasing land to a farmer was scheduled for March 2013.

 

We continued to work with our partners in Southeastern Massachusetts and attended two agricultural commission meetings in the region, one in Westport and one in Dartmouth. The Town of Dartmouth let us know that they had a good inventory of agricultural land and had already worked a lot on matching new farmers with land, but that they would be happy to work on this project with us as a way to continue the work that they already do. Westport had not done anything like this in the past, and they were interested, yet not so enthusiastic about working on the project. The staff at SEMAP and TTOR were very busy and were unable to organize any follow up meetings with these two communities.

 

October 2012: We held two workshops on “leasing your land to a farmer”, one in Concord and the other in Topsfield. The Topsfield workshop was attended by a reporter from the Tri-town Transcript who wrote another article about the workshop (see http://www.wickedlocal.com/boxford/newsnow/x1745959353/Local-landowners-and-farmers-learn-about-leasing-land-at-Alfalfa-Farm-seminar#axzz2CmbfIb8y)

 

November 2012: We generated a new map for Topsfield of their land in agriculture that they can put on their Town’s website. During our follow up meeting the commission members also decided that they would like to host a regional meeting of agricultural commissions for the spring in order to share this project with their neighbors and see if other towns’ agricultural commissions would also like to get involved. Their hope was to host a workshop on leasing land to farmers the following fall that will have a regional pull, rather than just include residents from their town.

 

In Lincoln, we got the updated parcel information and completed the GIS analysis for Lincoln. We then worked with the intern they hired and the Conservation Commission GIS employee to look at how our analysis compares to the agricultural field layer they already have. The intern combined the two data sets and made more exact analyses for us to present the information to the Lincoln Ag Com and see how they would like to proceed with activities and outreach.

 

December 2012: We met with staff from Nuestras Raices, an immigrant farming program based in Holyoke, MA about the need for new agricultural land for their project and for their farmers that are graduating from their program. They excitedly let us know that they are looking for land for their program participants and would love to work with us on outreach and education in Hamden County in order to find land for their farmers. Additionally, a feature article (front page) of the 12/3/12 Boston Globe featuring the innovative land matching program and one of our successful Groton matches was published. Additional inquiries have been received as a result of the article. http://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2012/12/03/for-would-mass-farmers-matchmaker-that-knows-land/YkcV3I8H5iR92o92xlbQGK/story.html?camp=newsletter

 

March 2013: We held a “Leasing Your Land to a Farmer” event in Dartmouth, in partnership with SEMAP and TTOR, inviting landowners identified in both Dartmouth and Westport. We also met with the Agricultural Commissions of Ludlow and Wilbraham, though there was not a good attendance from Wilbraham. The Ludlow Agricultural Commission was extremely interested in viewing the map and data and expected that after reviewing the information that they would be happy to organize an event in conjunction with Wilbraham or alone.

 

March – June 2013: During this time there was staff turnover at New Entry.  Becca Weaver left the position to pursue agricultural education at UC Santa Cruz. Ashley Davies became the Project Contact.

 

June 2013: The final draft of the “Plain Language Guide to Farming Multiple Plots” was completed.

 

July 2013: We were in contact with the Town of Monson Agricultural Commission, they expressed interest in the project but wanted to wait until the winter to meet.

 

June – August 2013: We worked with the Town of Lincoln on finalizing their agricultural maps, planning the landowner outreach event, preparing outreach materials, meeting with the Board of Selectmen, and creating the presentation.

 

November 2013: We held a “Future of Agriculture” event in Lincoln. There was a great turnout of both landowners and farmers (over 80 people in attendance). Great conversations were had, and some matches were even started at the event. Five landowners have contacted us as a result of this event.

 

December 2013: We reached out to the Westport Land Conservation Trust and TTOR about holding another landowner outreach event in Southeastern MA. With a new Executive Director on board at the WLCT, they are very interested in partnering with New Entry on this.

 

January – April 2014: Work on the GIS report was contracted to former staff member, Becca Weaver to complete. Guide was developed, reviewed, and formatted. Ashley Davies transitioned from her position and Noelle Fogg was hired as the new Farmland Matching Service Coordinator.

 

April 2014: New Farmland Matching Coordinator, Noelle Fogg, attended an Ag Comm meeting in the town of Ludlow to guide a meeting focused on GIS mapping of potential available farmland in the community.

 

May 2014: Final editing and design of New Entry’s guide to Best Practices for Farming Multiple Plots and the GIS Community Guides are completed. SARE final report completed.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

This project has strong potential to be replicated in multiple communities across the US, either by an independent or non-profit organization, like New Entry, or within communities and local town commissions themselves. As an outside organization working with various communities with different goals, it was critical that New Entry engaged the community members themselves to decide on specific elements of how this process would work best in their town. We presented what was possible through the GIS analysis and also described the opportunities a community can pursue with this type information and resulting maps. Ways in which this project might be replicated include:

  • Communities endorsing the outside organization’s work and signing a letter to be sent to landowners in their town who own potential agricultural land. The outside organization would be in charge of outreach and hosting information sessions.

 

  • Communities vetting all the properties found on the GIS map individually to determine the best property owners to reach out to and which landowners they should not contact.

 

  • Communities helping develop landowner information sessions and presenting their goals on around farmland protection and utilization or other perspectives and other information at that session.

 

  • Communities wishing to be the arbiters of the information and any landowners interested in leasing farmland can contact a local community organization to be connected to local farmers.

 

Future Recommendations

Lessons learned during this community outreach and engagement process were many and varied from community to community in terms of what worked best for each locale. One of our biggest lessons from this project was to let the process be community lead and be sure to consider local politics. Our most successful communities were those where we had the strong support of the local town and selectman, the agricultural commission, buy local groups, climate change (transition town communities) affinity groups, or other like-minded environmental or faith-based organizations who were eager to help contribute to the effort, galvanize support for the process, and conduct local outreach for successful community meetings and engagement. Many communities recognized their aging farm population and embraced the concept of helping connect new growers to available land in their towns. We learned to suggest ideas of how to approach the process but not be too prescriptive in how to conduct outreach, engage landowners, or interpret parcel data in a community. The saying that “all politics is local” rings true. Communities themselves often have the best ideas to offer that will make a process like this successful for their town.

 

 

 

We also learned as an “outside organization” conducting this work that some communities can be somewhat insular. Despite our best efforts to be a resource to communities, some members of town boards take offense to outside groups getting involved in issues they see as town-specific, especially around resource availability. In communities where there was resistance to the project, we discovered that some local farmers involved in local agricultural commissions were also looking for additional farmland, so might have been less keen on welcoming newcomers (new farmers) to their communities as added competition. We learned not to push our involvement with these communities and provided information on the process and our support for consideration, but ultimately, moving forward with a project like this is and individual community choice. Another community was concerned that identifying available farmland might be fodder (or “free research”) for developers or other citizens/parents looking for more land to develop sports fields for kids. They were concerned about making the information too broadly available.

 

 

 

Additionally, some landowners were taken aback by the amount of publicly available data about their land resources. It was important for us to communicate early on that all of the information we generated about land resources and associated features in a community is public and can be accessed easily through local, state and federal websites. Having a resource guide that spells out the step-by-step process for this project is helpful to provide to prospective communities who can better understand the process and steps involved.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.