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State decision sparks controversy on sale of Project Native farmland

“The rug was pulled out from us after [Project Native’s] 15 years of work and investments of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars. [For the Department of Agricultural Resources] to not explain is just wrong — it’s an injustice.” --- Erik Bruun, Project Native Board Chairman

Great Barrington — Horticulturalist, landscape designer and farmer Bridghe McCracken was in the midst of buying Project Native’s 52 acres of state-protected farmland when, she says, the Department of Agricultural Resources (DAR) said she couldn’t have it, and instead gave the purchase opportunity to another local farmer after, McCracken said, its Berkshire County representative had given her the state’s blessing.

Now Helia Land Design and Helia Native Nursery owner McCracken, who has an extensive farming background, and North Plain Farms owner Sean Stanton, who runs a successful meat and dairy operation on leased land, have found themselves at the center of a controversy fueled by the DAR’s silence over why, on May 23, it chose Stanton’s North Plain Farms over Helia.

Bridghe McCracken holds a rare plant grown from seed and potted for sale. Photo: Heather Bellow
Bridghe McCracken holds a rare plant grown from seed and potted for sale. Photo: Heather Bellow

The land in question is off Route 41, and consists of 53 1/2-acres, of which 1.5-acres holds parking, a farmhouse, water supply access, and a farm store. Those 52 acres of farmland were placed in the Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) program in 1993 to keep the land for commercial agriculture into perpetuity. The APR program was created in 1976 to keep commercial agriculture going, and to make land purchases affordable for farmers.

Project Native put the land up for sale for $105,000 due to the nonprofit’s “financial insolvency,” said Board Chair Erik Bruun, and got five proposals after beginning the Request for Proposal (RFP) process.

“We unanimously took Bridghe’s proposal to continue it as a native plant nursery, and the mission of Project Native,” Bruun told the Edge. “We had a purchase and sale [agreement] and everything set to go. We went to the state and we believed and we were told that it would be pro forma approval.”

That was when the “rug was pulled out from us after [Project Native’s] 15 years of work,” and “investments of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Bruun added. “And to not explain is just wrong — it’s an injustice.”

Both Bruun and McCracken said they received scant communications from the DAR that never “explained the rationale.”

McCracken tends to camomile seedlings. Photo: Heather Bellow
McCracken looks over camomile seedlings. Photo: Heather Bellow

But McCracken, who is presently renting the land from Project Native to propagate seeds and sell them, as well as grow rare and endangered plant varieties, told the Edge she made sure her plans fit into the APR guidelines for land use, and checked for weaknesses in her proposal. She said she sent her proposal to one “former APR staffer” and three other people who “regularly submit successful APR applications.”

Her plan for the entire site was to grow and sell native plants, including edible and medicinal varieties, and also use them in her design business. She also planned to have goats for meat, honeybees, medicinal tea harvesting, chickens for egg production, an apple, pear and peach orchard, and a maple syrup operation from the 22-acre woodland. She also would have had a farm store on the non-APR property adjacent to the farmland.

McCracken, whose farming experience includes Peace Corps work in Paraguay, South America, says the land holds “a large amount of genetic information,” along with rare and endangered plants “that for 13 years was an acceptable use for APR program land.” She said enormous amounts of state and local money and volunteer hours have gone into the land over the years to preserve it. She also spoke to the importance of seed banking, which she plans to do, in a world where climate change is increasingly wreaking havoc with agriculture.

Like Bruun, McCracken said Berkshire County APR representative Barbara Hopson, who worked with Project Native “for years,” told her McCracken’s purchase for Helia would be a quick and easy deal. McCracken says Hopson said the typical 6-week APR decision period in this case would take only two weeks. “ ‘This is standard,’ ” Hopson reportedly said. “ ‘This looks great to us.’ ”

Sean Stanton of North Plain Farms in front of his laying hen operation near Project Native's site. Stanton's proposal for the agricultural use of the Project Native property was accepted. Photo: Heather Bellow
Sean Stanton of North Plain Farms in front of his laying hen operation near Project Native’s site. Stanton’s proposal for the agricultural use of the Project Native property was accepted. Photo: Heather Bellow

Apparently, it did not, and neither McCracken nor Project Native were told why the state exercised it’s “right to first refusal” and began issuing proposal requests. It got three; one from McCracken, who was told to reapply; one from Stanton; and a third from an unknown farmer.

Hopson refused comment and referred calls to DAR Director Gerard Kennedy. Kennedy’s press secretary, Katie Gronendyke, sent the Edge the APR criteria, but refused to comment about the DAR’s reasoning.

Stanton had for years looked for affordable APR land to increase his farming operation. According to his proposal, he wants to expand pig production, his laying flock of hens, his tomato production, beef herd, and to consolidate operations for efficiency. He plans to use the farm as a “main hub of operations in perpetuity.”

On his current base of operations on 10 acres just down the road from the Project Native land, Stanton runs a multi­-species livestock farm with grass-fed and certified organic beef and dairy cattle, pigs, goats, and broiler and layer hens. The small dairy is operated as Blue Hill Farm, off of Blue Hill Road. Stanton also grows over 2,500 pounds of heirloom tomatoes every year, forage crops and hay.

He sells to local restaurants, farmers’ markets, and from his farm store.

Stanton has, for the last 15 years, worked and used 180 acres that he leases, and will continue to lease. This will be his first purchase, and he is set to close in August. Stanton says things are getting cramped, and that the structures at the Project Native site will help him “protect and organize tools and equipment, have year ­round workshop space, and additional storage for hay. Hoop structures will allow the rotation of forage and cover crops with vegetables and winter animal housing.”

“We are currently bursting at the seams and have been searching for land to expand on to for over six years,” wrote Stanton’s partner, Tess Diamond, in an email. “ Given the proximity to the other land we farm, the infrastructure in place and the large grazing pastures this is an ideal fit for us.”

Stanton’s plan for the Project Native site is to use the “prime agricultural soil” on 26 acres of open pasture for rotational grazing of cattle, hens, goats, and to maintain the pasture and soil for the benefit of this grazing, open habitat wildlife, and pollinating insects. He said the land is “ideal” soil for grazing cattle, and that the “tree borders surrounding the pasture provide important windbreak and shade for the cattle.” He also plans to harvest timber from the forest with a forest management plan. The rest of the land will be used to expand the layer hen flock, and to plant perennial fruit crops for farm store products and a small “pick­your­own” operation.

McCracken in the greenhouse with her crop of native plants. Photo: Heather Bellow
McCracken in one of the greenhouses with her crop of native plants. Photo: Heather Bellow

The DAR’s guidelines say that once basic prerequisites are fulfilled, and there is more than one applicant, the department uses additional criteria, one of which is “Ownership of other land subject to an APR.” Another is “Proximity of other agricultural land leased or owned.”

But the DAR won’t say what it was that cut McCracken out of the deal.

“With their rules they can back themselves up,” McCracken said, adding that what this does is “consolidate” APR land among those who already have some. And her speculation did not end there. “I didn’t look like a farmer to them, and I am the wrong gender,” she said, noting that there are “very few women farmers in the APR program.”

Both Stanton and McCracken respect the work each other is doing.

McCracken says the land is “an unusual farming asset,” and said while cattle is important, it isn’t an “appropriate use of this land.” She said if the sale to North Plain Farm closes in August, Helia will have to “find a new farm and move the seed bank, plants, nursery, shop and greenhouses,” all by the end of July. Helia, which has 14 employees, will “sell as much as possible” between now and then. In the event of a move, it will take three to four years for a new seed crop to be established, McCracken said.

“I really appreciate the work Project Native has done,” Stanton said. “It’s been important work and they’ve created a lot of education about the diversity of native plants and the ecology. But I think agricultural land in this area is at an absolute premium, and not easy to come by, and if we want to have farming and agriculture as part of our landscape its important that we use what’s available for commercial agriculture.”

Stanton noted that according to the DAR, there are 68,000 acres of APR land statewide. According to MassAudubon, 1,250,000 acres in the state have conservation protection.

Stanton said he knew when he submitted his proposal that there was “potential for this to be controversial.” But, he said, “I went looking for land that was affordable and in the right place.”

Bruun said Stanton has been “very cooperative in the sense of wanting to support Helia in a way that is least destructive to his own ambitions in making for a painless transition.”

Indeed, Stanton said he has “been clear that any transition for [Helia] is something that we would be happy to help facilitate in terms of length of time to get the plants off the land and moved somewhere. This is not a hostile takeover.”

“This has nothing to do with Sean, who is a wonderful person,” Bruun said. “We want Sean to be very successful. Our feud is with the DAR.”

Project Native is “weighing different options about how to respond,” Bruun said, though he declined comment about whether that included litigation.

He and McCracken both, however, noted a lawsuit in progress against DAR over the agency’s decision-making in a Hadley APR land sale, the first lawsuit against it for this reason. The Hadley case is also the first time the DAR has ever exercised its right to first refusal in an APR land sale, McCracken said.

And McCracken said it was her understanding that the second set of criteria for purchasing APR land was created earlier this year in response to this lawsuit.

“This is not farmer versus farmer,” Bruun added. “We all feel we’ve been drawn into a big mistake. There are all sorts of things about it that feel so unorthodox.”

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