Greenbelt, Essex County’s Land Trust, and six partner organizations have been awarded $1,050,000 through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, providing Greenbelt with important seed funding to permanently protect working farms in the Merrimack River valley.
The awarded project, “Saving Farmland in the Southern Merrimack Watershed,” will allow Greenbelt to work with Essex County farmers to keep farming a vital part of the region’s landscape and economy.
“This award is a tremendous affirmation of the significance of the Merrimack Valley’s remaining working farms,” says Ed Becker, Greenbelt’s president. “We need to do everything we can to partner with local farmers to keep their farms viable, and to keep their land available to grow food and fiber for future generations.”
According to project partner Land for Good, nearly 30 percent of Massachusetts farmers are likely to exit farming in the next decade, and 90 percent of these retiring farmers don’t have a young farmer lined up to take over. High land values in our region make these family farms extremely vulnerable to development. Greenbelt estimates that several thousand acres of unprotected farmland in the Merrimack Valley could change hands in the near future. The RCPP funding will allow Greenbelt to offer farmers the opportunity to keep their farms farming, forever.
“The Lower Merrimack watershed, like many other parts of Massachusetts, is seeing rapid urbanization, high land values, and aging landowners, all of which make the area’s farms and farmland vulnerable to development,” says Christine Clarke, Massachusetts State Conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. “This project will help stem the loss of farmland and its potential impact on water quality and wildlife habitat.”
The Merrimack River was named by American Rivers as one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the country due to development pressure. Tens of thousands rely on the Merrimack River and its associated streams for drinking water. Limiting development on lands that surround these waterways is critical to keeping drinking water clean. “The loss of Merrimack Valley farmland would have tremendous adverse impacts upon the critical soil, water, and other natural resources upon which Essex County residents and farms depend,” says Becker.
Although the main focus of the project will be voluntary agricultural land easement acquisition, Greenbelt and its partners will collaborate on a series of free workshops providing resources to both young and senior farmers. Over the five-year project term, project partners Land for Good, Massachusetts Dept. of Agricultural Resources, National Young Farmers Coalition, Merrimack River Watershed Council, and the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project will collaborate on educational programming on topics including farm business planning, how to find farmland to buy and lease, and farm succession planning.
“The RCPP will be a real boost to farmland protection, viability, land access, and farm legacy in this region,” says Jim Hafner, executive director with Land for Good. “Viable farm businesses, access to land for next-generation farmers, and securing the legacies of established farms and farmers are closely linked to permanent protection. Greenbelt is helping lead the way in applying farmland protection tools and building relationships to advance all these goals.”