Between 1997 and 2002, Massachusetts saw a 10.2 percent decline of land in farms, from 577,637 acres in 1997 to 518,570 acres in 2002.1 While that trend has reversed, with the 2012 Census showing a small uptick in land in farms, to 523,517 acres or a nearly 1 percent increase, the number of acres in cropland – land that tends to be the most productive – has continued to decline, from 207,734 acres in 2002, to 187,406 acres in 2007, to 160,789 acres in 2012.2 The USDA Census of Agriculture does not indicate whether this land has been irretrievably lost to development, and USDA’s Natural Resources Inventory (NRI) conversion data is not available at the State level for recent years. An important first step related to this recommendation is better analysis and monitoring of farmland use and conversion patterns in the Commonwealth.
The decline in the Commonwealth’s agricultural land base, especially its cropland, threatens the industry’s viability. Indeed, competition among farmers for available farmland has increased, driving farmland prices up. Lack of access to affordable land is routinely cited by established and aspiring farmers alike as a primary challenge to entry and expansion.
Improving farm profitability is essential to slowing farmland conversion. So, too, is support for the State’s aging population of farmers and farmland owners, who could benefit from services around succession planning and, for those without a farm successor, assistance in finding a farmer able to purchase or lease the farm. For many retiring farmers the APR Program is an important option to tap into the equity in their land without selling it for development.
While Massachusetts has taken important steps to promote infill and compact development, the State’s antiquated zoning law is a stark exception. Zoning reform is needed, but must not result in a diminution of farmers’ equity or property value without compensation. State solar policies should distinguish between solar installations that result in the permanent loss of farmland and those with minimal long-term impacts on farmland, and distinguish between commercial solar development and development intended to meet a farm’s energy needs.
Better data, mapping, and analysis of the State’s farmland resources could better inform decisions around land use policies and investments. Some work has been done to identify lands suitable for agricultural production, but the findings are incomplete. Publicly owned general lands (State, county, and municipal) are underutilized for agriculture and have not been fully inventoried. Private landowners own a great deal of farmland that is underutilized or no longer in production. A better understanding of the amount of former farmland now classified as wetlands, and the potential environmental and economic impact of restoring some of that land to agriculture, could help inform any discussion around changes to the State Wetlands Protection Act (WPA).
Access to land in urban and suburban areas can be particularly challenging and expensive. There are often a myriad of local regulations and permitting issues a farmer has to navigate, including zoning bylaws or other regulations that specifically prohibit various farming practices. Municipal officials can lack the familiarity or know-how to deal with urban farming, or believe that the challenges of siting farms on urban land outweigh the benefits. Rooftop food production can be especially challenging; while gaining in prevalence, rooftop farming and gardening is still an emerging sector that requires more investment, research, and education.
Current State farmland programs are not designed for the typically smaller parcel size of urban farms. For instance, both the APR Program and Chapter 61A require a minimum parcel size of 5 acres. Consequently, urban farmers cannot access the tax relief provided by 61A or use the APR program to permanently protect urban farmland. Urban-specific tax incentives or abatements would be useful to encourage the use of vacant land for community gardens.
Community land trusts could be a means for providing access to land for farming in urban settings. Community land trusts are nonprofit, community-based corporations with a place-based membership and commitment to the use and stewardship of land on behalf of the local population. Community land trusts usually retain ownership of land and lease it to individuals or organizations who own the improvements they make upon the land.
As defined under M.G.L. c. 23A section 3A, Gateway Cities are midsize urban centers that anchor regional economies and for which industry was a primary driver of their economic and workforce resilience. These cities have many assets with unrealized potential, such as vacant land with existing infrastructure and strong connections to transportation networks. As such, these cities may be prime locations for focusing redevelopment of vacant land for urban farms or community gardens.