Growing Their Own–Land&People
In 1842, utopian visionaries and abolitionists calling themselves the Northampton Association of Education and Industry established a farm in the fertile soil along the Connecticut River in west central Massachusetts. Famed African-American abolitionist and women's rights activist Sojourner Truth was a member of the group; ex-slave and social reformer Frederick Douglass visited frequently; and the association's rambling farmhouse and outbuildings became a stop on the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves moving north to freedom.
Northampton was then a small but thriving town. To support themselves, community members reopened a former silk farm and factory on the Mill River, a tributary to the Connecticut, in what is now the Florence district. The experiment disbanded in 1846. But the utopian urge and spirit of community remain in today's city of about 28,000, whose motto is caritas, educatio, justitia— caring, education, justice. Northampton has won notice for its thriving arts scene, abundant bike trails and walking paths, and commitment to open government.It's a place where people get involved in, and vigorously debate, local issues.
Such a debate emerged in 2009, when a 43-acre farm known as the Bean Farm, next door to the abolitionists' former silk enterprise, was slated for purchase by the city. Northampton's recreation department needed land for baseball and soccer fields. Open space advocates wanted to extend the existing Mill River Greenway across the property. And farmers and local food advocates wanted to preserve the silty, well-drained soil—some of richest in the area—for local food production. The issue grew increasingly polarized as it moved from public hearings onto editorial pages, radio interviews, and blogs.
Resolving the impasse took months, but in the end, the city would get its playing fields and greenway, and much of the former farmland would be returned to communitybased agriculture. To make this happen, the city would have to acquire not one farm, but two. A new nonprofit would be born, raise more than $700,000 to support the farm effort, and create a model for other communities seeking to protect farmland and grow more of their own food closer to home. But for a while, this harmonious result was more than almost anyone dared to envision.
A Vision for Comunity Agriculture
Lilly Lombard calls the group of local food advocates that coalesced to save the farmland "the eaters," to convey the message that everybody needs to eat. Lombard, 44, moved to Northampton with her husband in 2002, bringing with her a history of activism going back to college. Within a few years she was spearheading an effort to have voters authorize Northampton's Community Preservation Act (CPA )—a local/state funding program that would eventually aid in the acquisition of the Bean Farm.
By then, Lombard was mothering a four-yearold daughter and a baby boy. "I'd collapse with my kids at seven p.m., then wake up and work from two to five a.m. My daughter resented how much time it took. She said, 'Mommy, I'm gonna vote no on the CPA .'"
As the farm controversy heated up, Lombard quit her job with the Funder's Network on Reproductive Health & Rights and set out to create neighborhood agriculture at the Bean Farm. She had come to believe that local food is healthier and that communities need to take responsibility for raising more of their own food—a locavore message that is heard increasingly around the nation these days.
Lombard and the growing band of eaters frequented public meetings where the farm acquisition was being discussed. They started a locavore listserv called Grow Food in Northampton. They met personally with the mayor and city planner and circulated a petition calling for the Bean Farm to be kept primarily in agriculture. Leaders in the local farming community also supported the effort. "I was starting to dig my heels in for agriculture," says Rich Jaescke, who sits on the city's agricultural commission. "I hate to use the word 'lost,' but I didn't want to see it go to ballfields. I said to myself, 'The agricultural sector will never forgive us if we roll over on this thing.'"
But "recreation was also a core priority," says Northampton planner Wayne Feiden. The city needed at least ten new ballfields just to keep up with the demand. So few fields were available that teams rarely got to practice, and some had to drive to other locations for "home" games. The city also wanted to extend the greenway and protect the floodplain along the Mill River. "We wouldn't have done the project without all three legs of the stool— they were all really important," Feiden says.
Baking a Bigger Pie
Watching the drama unfold was Clem Clay, director of TPL's four-state Connecticut River Program, whose goals include the preservation of prime farmland and vibrant communities. If there wasn't enough pie to go around at the Bean Farm, Clay thought, why not try to bake a bigger pie? Clay knew that over the years Wayne Goulet, owner of the 136-acre Allard Farm next door to the Bean property, had discussed possibly selling his farm to the city as well. Clay spoke with Goulet, who soon notified officials that he was ready to sell if they could agree on a price.
"But buying both of those farms was beyond us," says city planner Feiden. He called to ask if TPL could work out a deal—fast. TPL would negotiate with both landowners and put together funding to pay for the farms, starting with the money the city had committed for the Bean property. Working with a city-established task force, TPL would be what Feiden calls "an honest broker" in helping the community decide which portions of the combined farms should go for what purposes. With representatives from Northampton's agricultural, conservation, and recreation commissions, plus key city staff and citizen experts, the task force exemplified the city's inclusive decision-making process.
In the end, everybody gave a little to parcel out land for farming, recreation, and conservation. "The art of living as a community is that there's going to be compromise," says farmer Rich Jaescke, who sat on the task force. "I don't think one side would ever be happy knowing they lost everything."
Our Farm, Our Future
By spring of 2010, TPL senior project manager Chris LaPointe had come up with a funding plan to cover its $2.46 million purchase of the two farms. Using Community Preservation Act and state recreation grant funds, the city would buy approximately 60 of the 180 total acres for the ballfields and greenway. That left 120 acres— including most of the abolitionists' old farm—for agriculture. The state Department of Agricultural Resources paid more than $1 million to place a permanent agricultural restriction on the property, enabling TPL to reduce the price for the farmland to $585,000. "The easiest thing would be to sell it all to an established farmer and get TPL out of the loop," says Clem Clay.
But Lilly Lombard had another idea. Over the months of debate, visits to the farms, and countless meetings, she and the other eaters had developed the notion of starting a nonprofit, Grow Food Northampton, to buy the land. She envisioned a place where agriculture, conservation, social justice, and history all would come together. Local farmers could raise fruits and vegetables for local markets, restaurants, and schools and sell Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares to area residents—a kind of subscription to receive produce during the growing season. There would also be room for community gardens, workshops, and projects to create a model for sustainable agriculture. Food could be shared with low-income residents.
"It was an interesting notion," says TPL's Clem Clay. "Grow Food Northampton's mission, energy, and passion were great. But there was some skepticism. They weren't even incorporated yet. They didn't have any farmers involved or any experience in farming. And how fast could they raise the money?"
"None of us had ever created a nonprofit before," Lombard remembers. "None of us were professional fundraisers. We would never have been able to do any of this without TPL. They were willing to consider us as potential buyers from the beginning."
TPL put together a plan and set a deadline of January 2011 for Grow Food Northampton to raise the money for the farmland and campaign costs. The remaining property was divided into four separate parcels, so that even if the newborn nonprofit couldn't raise all of the funds, they might be able to buy at least a portion of the land. As word of the campaign spread, more than 100 people came forward to help. Lombard became the group's president. Adopting the slogan "Our Food, Our Farm," the group held house parties, set up a Facebook page, and canvassed by phone and door to door. By mid-September 2010 they had raised enough to purchase 37 acres. Encouraged, they decided to go after all four parcels. "You hit that tipping point when the community actually believes you can do it," says Lombard. Dozens of small businesses offered to give a percentage of their proceeds to the cause. In the end, about 1,300 contributors helped make the Northampton Community Farm a reality.
A Community Farm Is Born
On a misty day last June, two young farmers—Jen Smith and her husband, Nate Frigard—work with three assistants in a barn at their brand-new Crimson and Clover Farm: 37 acres of the Northampton Community Farm on which they've signed a 99-year lease. They are washing just-picked kale, spinach, and arugula for distribution to CSA shareholders that afternoon. One of the assistants kicks off a song that begins, "Dirt made my lunch," and soon all five workers are singing. Soft light filters through the barn's windows, and across the fields you can see the old, pale yellow farmhouse where members of the longago utopian society lived and, beyond it, their brick former silk mill, now condominiums.
Smith, 31, and Frigard, 30, met and fell in love at a farm in Virginia, studied farming in California, and taught at The Farm School, an educational organic farm in Athol, Massachusetts. Now they were ready for a farm of their own, and this was the perfect opportunity. Hoping to sell 120 CSA shares the first year, they in fact sold 200, including some to Grow Food Northampton, which distributed the produce to local low-income families. Produce unsold at the end of a week goes to homeless shelters, nursing homes, and similar nonprofit providers.
It's a relatively unusual arrangement that could serve as a model for other communities, says Clem Clay, who follows agricultural issues as a board member of Land For Good, a nonprofit that offers education and assistance to New England farmers. "As a landowner, Grow Food Northampton is able to promote its nonprofit goals by offering young farmers one of the hardest things to find to get started—long-term, secure access to quality farmland." The city's new soccer and baseball fields will be conveniently located beside the farm—so families can get their exercise and pick up their healthy produce in a single trip. "It's been a whirlwind two years," says Clem Clay. "This really is the perfect result. The city got its playing fields, and Grow Food Northampton bought this historic farm and brought community agriculture to Northampton in a big way."
And the nonprofit's work is just beginning. They've leased 17 acres to the city for a 400-plot community garden and will lease additional land to other local farmers for sustainable farming. They're working with another community program to bring more locally grown food into Northampton schools, and they'll offer classes and plenty of farm time to "plant the seeds" for a new generation. "I took my kids down to the farm enough times that they've started feeling that it's theirs," says Lilly Lombard. "My son Luke is seven; he thinks it's cool. My daughter Madeleine, who's ten, has aspirations to be a farmer when she grows up."
Cape Cod–based freelancer Kathy Shorr has written about local food and environmental issues for The Wilderness Society, National Geographic's The Green Guide, and the NRDC website smartercities.org. She is a staff member of the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies.