Chances are that your favorite farm in Amherst is protected. That is because the Town of Amherst is a leader in land conservation. In fact, with 2,000 acres of protected farmland, Amherst ranks second in the Commonwealth in its amount of protected open space. But that doesn’t mean ALL of Amherst’s farms are safe. Flat, well-drained soil that is largely free of rocks is not only good for farming, it is attractive to developers. About 500 more acres of Amherst’s best agricultural land is still at risk of being converted to subdivision development.
Amherst remains committed to continuing efforts to conserve working farmland. According to Amherst’s Open Space and Recreation Plan drafted in 2003, there are many good reasons to protect our agricultural resources. Among them:
Protected land is essential to Amherst’s appearance, economy, and well-being. Conservation land helps maintain the Town’s rural atmosphere, provides adequate and for traditional and modern forms of outdoor recreation, and protects important wildlife habitat for both game and non-game species. Protected farmland provides a permanent base on which present and future farm businesses depend, and helps farm support businesses maintain a significant presence in Amherst and adjacent towns.
Traditional resource-based economic activities such as agriculture and forestry, and traditional forms of recreation such as fishing and hunting continue to play major roles in Amherst. The Conservation Commission and Conservation Department need to continue to help keep those traditions and their associated cultural practices viable by working closely with farmers and farmland owners, encouraging the farm economy, carrying out ecologically sound forest and open land wildlife habitat management on Town watershed lands in 4 towns, and renting out fields for farm production and community gardening.
Setting aside conservation land and farmland in outlying areas of Town is 1 aspect of Amherst’s long-established planning goal - to direct new growth toward existing developed centers. This preserves Amherst’s historic pattern of development (village centers separated by open land) and reduces the need for continual expansion of expensive systems of public utilities and services.
To help achieve these goals, Amherst has actively participated in the state’s APR program for more than 30 years. The APR program is a voluntary program which is intended to offer a non-development alternative to farmers and other landowners of “prime” agricultural land who are faced with a decision regarding future use and disposition of their farms. Toward this end, the program offers to pay farmers the difference between the “fair market value” and the “agricultural value” of their farmland in exchange for a permanent deed restriction, which precludes any use of the property that will have a negative impact on its agricultural viability. preserves the land from housing development by purchasing the development rights from the farmland owner. Amherst has 33 farms that have benefited from this APR program, much of which is contiguous and helps to form a large uninterrupted agricultural sector.
Buy More Land
Through the receipt of APR funds-usually between $10,000 to $20,000 per acre depending on the ability to develop the land and the productivity of the soil, farmland owners can buy more land to expand their agricultural operation, pay off debt, invest in farmland equipment, or pay for other lifetime investments such as college tuition and retirement. The farmers and farmland owners who took the initiative to enroll in this program demonstrated the courage and commitment that is essential to protect land for future generations. This is a voluntary program, and many owners could stand to gain more profit from a large-scale subdivision development. Through their generosity and foresight, everyone in the Town of Amherst wins.
Farming is a Business
But conserving farmland is not just about preserving pretty landscapes. Farming is a business, and an important economic activity in Amherst. By purchasing APR’s, raw farmland becomes more affordable for farmers to buy. The typical value is just $5,000 per acre once the development rights have been removed purchased. Compare this to the $15,000 to $100,000 per acre that land is often valued for development purposes.