Massachusetts Food System Collaborative
Massachusetts Food System Collaborative

Land: Goal 3

More land will be available for agriculture in rural communities, suburbs, and cities, and farmers will have more secure and affordable access to that land.

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.

Recommendation 3.1: Develop a formal State farmland action plan to: (1) determine the resources needed to improve State data collection around farmland trends; (2) establish a statewide baseline of land in active agricultural production, or the process for doing so with improved data collection, and a system for tracking acres of farmland in production over time; (3) set measurable goals and benchmarks related to farmland protection, retention, and access; and (4) recommend State program spending levels to meet those goals and benchmarks. See Recommendation 2.1 and Action 2.1.1.

Recommendation 3.2: Encourage use of suitable publicly-owned land for farming.

Action 3.2.1: Through the proposed State farmland action plan, task EEA with identifying land owned by the State and counties that is either in current agricultural production or suitable for agricultural production, with input from other State agencies and departments. Ensure that EOEEA, and other State agencies as needed, have adequate resources to undertake this assessment and to assist in Action 3.2. See Recommendation 2.1.

Action 3.2.2: For land identified through the inventory as suitable for agricultural production and as appropriate per controlling agency mission, establish a process for negotiating potential agricultural use on parcels with the appropriate State agencies.

Action 3.2.3: Create standard policies around farming State-owned land, allowing normal agricultural practices so long as they are not inconsistent with mission of the controlling agency and there is recognition of any restrictions on the parcel in question.

Action 3.2.4: Open State-owned woodlands to maple syrup production.

Action 3.2.5: Change State law or policy to enable State agencies to use leases longer than the current 5-year maximum licenses on State-owned land.

Action 3.2.6: Change State law to allow State agencies to retain and reinvest the revenues they receive from leasing farmland to farmers. Develop guidelines around lease fees.

Action 3.2.7: Change State law to give town agricultural commissions, at a town’s discretion, authority to manage and lease suitable town-owned land for agricultural use. Train agricultural commissions on how to work with town land managers to make suitable town-owned land available for leasing, and on where to find examples of model farm leases.

Action 3.2.8: Provide technical assistance to municipalities to identify suitable municipally-owned land, including parks, schools, and open land, for food production. Encourage municipalities to partner with community garden and other nonprofit urban growing groups to grow on underutilized public lands.

Action 3.2.9: Where needed, develop model contracts and leases that municipalities can use to lease city-owned land for farming. Train municipal land use managers and planners on these tools.

Recommendation 3.3: Encourage and enable communities to take actions to retain farmland and promote infill and compact development without adversely impacting farmers’ equity in their land.

Action 3.3.1: Ensure that statewide zoning reform reflects the concerns of the agricultural community over potential loss of value and equity.

Action 3.3.2: Educate municipal planning boards and agricultural commissions about the use of Conservation Subdivision/Natural Resources Protection Zoning and accessory apartment bylaws as tools to promote compact development, and provide technical support to communities seeking to adopt and use these zoning tools.

Action 3.3.3: Consider State legislation to enable communities to further reduce property taxes on farmland in exchange for term easements.

Action 3.3.4: Encourage and support agricultural commissions and, in communities where there are no agricultural commissions, other municipal boards, land trusts, and farm organizations, in: educating landowners about Chapter 61/61A/61B, farmland protection and conservation programs, and land listing, linking, and matching services; inventorying current and potential farmland in town; and identifying opportunities for restoring active farming on land that has been abandoned.

Recommendation 3.4: Build on existing models to create preferential zoning and ordinances to support urban agriculture, with guidance from key sector experts such as beekeepers, poultry farmers, and others familiar with the particular challenges of urban farming.

Action 3.4.1: Provide technical assistance and model zoning bylaws and ordinances to encourage municipalities to support the use of land, rooftops, and unused infrastructure for urban agriculture.

Action 3.4.2: Encourage more cities to adopt Right to Farm bylaws and ordinances.

Action 3.4.3: Provide more public education on urban food production techniques in community gardens and home gardens, such as growing vegetables, composting, keeping bees, chickens, and other animals.

Action 3.4.4: Provide more public education on best management practices for urban gardening in locations with known or suspected soil contamination. Provide funding for soil testing.

Recommendation 3.5: Strengthen State farmland loss mitigation and land disposition policies.

Action 3.5.1: Enact pending legislation to ensure no net loss of land protected under Article 97 of the State constitution.

Action 3.5.2: Expand and strengthen Executive Order 193 and the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA). Convene a working group to develop recommendations for doing so, including how to address renewable alternative energy (e.g. solar) development on agricultural land.

Recommendation 3.6: Review State policies and incentives around renewable alternative energy (e.g. solar) development, to better harmonize State goals around renewable energy development and natural resource protection, including farmland.

Action 3.6.1: Analyze impact of EOEEA’s 2013 policy changes related to solar incentives, and develop recommendations (in conjunction with recommendations developed under Action 3.4.2) to further incentivize commercial solar development on existing infrastructure or on lands with marginal natural resource value.

Action 3.6.2: Develop guidance for farmers and municipal officials around solar development and the types of arrays and installation techniques that minimize the long-term impact on agricultural resources.

Recommendation 3.7: Keep conserved farmland in active agricultural use.

Action 3.7.1: Provide adequate funding for APR Program stewardship. Consider a dedicated fund for this purpose, as was proposed in the 2014 Environmental Bond. Include outreach to landowners around farm transfer and succession strategies as part of APR Program stewardship.

Action 3.7.2: Encourage State agencies that manage State-owned land that is currently or was formerly farmed to work with MDAR to develop management plans that allow continued farming of the land, consistent with the purpose for which the land was protected.

Action 3.7.3: Explore the need, cost, and interest among APR landowners in selling Options to Purchase at Agricultural Value (OPAVs) on existing APRs that do not have them.

Recommendation 3.8: Improve understanding among the agriculture and conservation communities of State and federal wetlands laws and regulations and their impact on farmland.

Action 3.8.1: Re-establish the State WPA oversight/advisory committee. Task the Committee with analyzing how farmland across the Commonwealth has been impacted by State and federal wetlands laws and regulations, and the potential impacts of restoring prior farmland to active agricultural use. Task the Committee with developing recommendations related to restoration of prior farmlands to active agricultural use and the need and advisability of statutory or regulatory changes related to the WPA’s agricultural provisions, including the 5-year production window to qualify for the agricultural exemption.

Action 3.8.2: Update the State Farming in Wetlands guide (last updated in 1996), and include new examples of situations involving the WPA agricultural exemption. Provide training to farmers and agriculture commissions on the guide and the agricultural exemption. Require conservation commission members to take a training course on the agriculture exemption.

Action 3.8.3: Pursue a program that would allow towns to obtain better insurance rates if conservation commission members attend trainings, similar to local planning board training discounts.

Action 3.8.4: Encourage greater communication and joint training, workshop presentations, and fact sheet development between Massachusetts Association of Agricultural Commissions (MAAC) and Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions (MACC).

Recommendation 3.9: Help and incentivize farmers and farmland owners to keep their land in farming as it transfers out of their ownership.

Action 3.9.1: Enact legislation to modify State estate tax to allow farmland to be valued according to its current use.

Action 3.9.2: Expand farm succession planning services for farmers. Consider models such as UMass’ Your Forest, Your Legacy program, Land for Good and various programs the U.S. Forest Service is doing with forestland owners.

Action 3.9.3: Increase funding and technical assistance for farmland succession planning and matching services through State, federal, and non-governmental organization (NGO) programs.

Action 3.9.4: Consider eliminating State capital gains tax on farmland that is sold to a farmer. The sale should be subject to a look-back provision, to ensure the land stays in active agriculture for a period of years.

Recommendation 3.10: Help farmers and farmland owners restore productive farmland without negative environmental impacts.

Action 3.10.1: Enact a farmland restoration program similar to Connecticut’s Department of Agriculture’s Farmland Restoration Program, which cost shares with farmers on land management and conservation practices aimed at bringing former farmland back into food production. Consider including in the program projects that would also benefit pollinators and other rare species that thrive on agricultural land.

Recommendation 3.11: Reduce Chapter 61A minimum requirement to encourage farming on smaller parcels in all communities – urban, suburban, and rural.

Action 3.11.1: Enact legislation to expand Chapter 61A eligibility to parcels smaller than 5 acres. Consider requiring an increase in the value of production threshold on smaller parcels to ensure that those parcels are being actively used for commercial agriculture.

Recommendation 3.12: Encourage more land trusts and municipalities to lease land that they own to farmers.

Action 3.12.1: Provide technical assistance to agriculture commissions and, where no agricultural commissions exist, municipal land managers and relevant town committees to inventory municipally-owned land and assess its suitability for agriculture.

Action 3.12.2: Educate land trusts, agriculture and conservation commissions, and municipal land managers on farm-friendly lease arrangements, and provide technical assistance to these entities to assist with implementation of farm leases.

Recommendation 3.13: Determine how to support the ability of farmers to live within reasonable proximity to their farm, helping to make their farm tenure more secure.

Action 3.13.1: Establish a task force with MDAR, ALPC, and stakeholder representation to recommend revisions to APR policy around housing on future APRs, including ways to keep existing farmhouses with protected parcels.

Action 3.13.2: Educate land trusts, agriculture commissions, and others involved in farmland protection about the role and value of ground leases in linking housing and farmland protection.

Recommendation 3.14: Provide improved and streamlined farm linking systems and matching services, so that farmland owners who want to sell or lease land to a farmer are easily able to do so, and farm seekers have a way to easily identify potential land for sale or lease.

Action 3.14.1: Integrate and expand existing NGO farm-linking databases, so farmland owners and seekers in all parts of the State, including urban areas, can more readily find each other. Provide State support for these databases. Educate farmland owners and agricultural commissions about these databases.

Action 3.14.2: Integrate succession planning and farmland matching into MDAR’s APR stewardship.

Action 3.14.3: Provide State support for succession planning and land matching services. Incorporate these services more fully into the State FVEP; consider expanding eligibility for FVEP to non-farming farmland owners seeking farm transfer and succession support.

Recommendation 3.15: Ensure that commercial agriculture is viable on land protected with State-approved CRs, and allow more landowners to donate APRs.

Action 3.15.1: Develop a more flexible CR that allows for commercial agriculture in situations where land being protected is suitable for agriculture. Educate land use attorneys and land trust staff on these terms and conditions.

Action 3.15.2: Change MDAR policy to accept donated APRs on farmland that does not meet eligibility requirements for restrictions purchased through the program.

Recommendation 3.16: Focus the development of urban agriculture on vacant and underutilized land in Gateway Cities and other cities.

Action 3.16.1: Focus analysis on Gateway Cities to assess the potential for those cities to support both short- and long-term urban agriculture on vacant and underutilized land. Work with city planners to inventory these municipalities’ surplus land and prioritize based upon criteria developed in the action plan as called for in Recommendation 2.1. Consider using Health Impact Assessments (HIAs) to evaluate soil remediation on urban land.

Action 3.16.2: Advocate for dedicated funding conduct soil testing, and import or remediate soil on prioritized land in Gateway Cities and other cities. Consider using the MEPA process to secure clean soil from development projects that could replace contaminated soils in urban locations.

Action 3.16.3: Provide technical assistance to Gateway City municipal officials on creating mutually beneficial lease agreements with urban farmers, both commercial and not-for-profit.

Recommendation 3.17: Develop community land trusts in Gateway Cities and other municipalities as a means to provide greater access to and long-term community control of land and to provide farmers the opportunity to gain equity in their farms. See the Greater Boston Community Land Trust Network or Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative for examples.

Action 3.17.1: Host information sessions and provide other technical assistance for communities interested in forming community land trusts, involving existing land trusts as well.

Recommendation 3.18: Provide more education and incentives for developers and municipalities to incorporate food production opportunities into new and redeveloped urban properties.

Action 3.18.1: Support State and municipal tax incentives to encourage short- and long- term use of urban land and buildings for food production, such as for the installation of green roofs that include food production and the transformation of vacant lots into community gardens.

Action 3.18.2: Research production methods for rooftop crops, including minimizing environmental contamination.

Action 3.18.3: Provide education and technical assistance to builders, developers, and municipal building authorities on green roof installation and maintenance, edible landscaping, and other alternative methods for growing food in an urban environment, including living walls, vertical greenhouses, hydroponics, and aquaponics.

Recommendation 3.19: Encourage the creation and maintenance of local community gardens within walking distance of low-income neighborhoods.

Action 3.19.1: Educate municipal officials and citizen advocates about the availability of State funds for this purpose, including Local Acquisitions for Natural Diversity (LAND), Parkland Acquisitions and Renovations Program (PARC), Community Forest Stewardship Implementation, and Urban Agriculture.

[1] USDA. (2002). Census of Agriculture, Massachusetts, Table 8. Accessed November 2015 from

[2] USDA. (2002). Census of Agriculture, Massachusetts, Table 8. Accessed November 2015 from USDA. (2012). Census of Agriculture, Massachusetts, Table 8. Accessed November 2015 from

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