Land Debate Looms Over Williamstown Farmer's Future Harvest
Farmer Kim Wells relies on acreage being considered for affordable housing to raise feed for his cattle.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Driving around his Henderson Road farm in an all-terrain vehicle on a crisp January morning, Kim Wells points out everything he and his wife have done to build up the operation.
He shows you the barn they rebuilt on a foundation that was stripped when the farm's former owner went broke, the miles of electrified fence he installed to pen his livestock, the shelters he and a welder friend fashioned to protect his pigs from the elements.
"When we bought it, we got the house, which was a wreck, and the Federal Land Bank had sold the big barn," Wells explains. "We got the small barn, the house and the foundation for the big barn.
"We bought it in 1982. I was 27 years old. It was a great opportunity if you could afford it. We bought it from the Federal Land Bank. The real estate agent we used said she was embarrassed to show it."
Today, Wells is proud to show it off.
Some pigs come up to nuzzle him when he steps inside their enclosure, the cattle amble up a small hill to check out the stranger sitting beside Wells in the ATV, and Wells' border collie runs along behind the vehicle.
It's a good day. But as often is the case these days at East Mountain Farm, the conversation turns to the issue that looms over the farm an haunts Wells' nights: the potential that a land development plan will take away access to a town-owned field Wells has hayed since 1991.
The parcel in question, known as the Lowry Property, is located about three miles from Wells' East Mountain Farm. Lowry is conserved land under the auspices of the town's Conservation Commission, which allows Wells to work the land under a license agreement for a minimal fee.
It is fertile farmland that yields about 4,200 bales of hay each year on about 22 acres of the 30-acre property, Wells says.
In November, it was announced that the town intends to pursue Lowry as a site for developing affordable housing to replace housing lost in the flood-prone Spruces Mobile Home Park. The plan has angered residents in two camps: conservationists who want to see the land remain protected and some current Spruces residents who want to see the park remain open.
Town officials argue that the park cannot be protected from future floods. The company that owns the park says it cannot afford to operate it after most of its sites were deemed uninhabitable after Tropical Storm Irene. And affordable housing advocates say that using town-owned land to address a pressing need in town makes more fiscal sense than spending limited funds to acquire new land.
In the last three months, there have been letters to the editor, the birth of a new conservation group, an Open Meeting Law complaint against the Board of Selectmen to the commonwealth's attorney general and tense exchanges at usually sleepy town committee meetings.
As a member of the town's Agricultural Commission and a businessman, Wells has attended many of those meetings. But his curiously mild-mannered demeanor has left some wondering what his stake in the issue really is.
One of his colleagues on the Ag Comm even said some in town have misread Wells' equanimity to mean he is not really upset about the development talk.
He laughs about such a conclusion.
"My wife says I'm being very diplomatic," Wells said. "And I guess I'm forcing myself to be. I can't begin to tell you the sleep I've lost, the angry conversations I've had with myself about seeing it happen and most of all going to the (Affordable Housing Committee) meeting where they sowed the conceptual plan (for Lowry) and just this sinking feeling in my stomach. I could visualize better than anyone there those houses sitting up there.
"No matter how it's sugar-coated, it's a loss of farmland.
"So to say that I've not been angry about it, well, you haven't hung around with me back with the pigs or something like that."
Key to Economic Success
Lowry and another parcel, the Burbank Property, are the only town-owned sites where Williamstown has issued Special Use Permits for agricultural use. Winthrop Chenail of Mount Williams Dairy Farm holds the permit on Burbank.
Wells readily admits that the $150 per year he pays for the right to hay Lowry is not a large sum.
"They're not getting rich off of me," he says.
But it is not like $150 is all he pays for the hay he takes.
There is a lot of labor, a lot of fertilizer and a lot of luck that goes into those 4,200 bales of hay.
A mountain of hay in Wells' barn. He harvests about 4,200 bales a year.
"That's where I laugh at people who say I got a good deal here,” Wells said. “Yeah, as long as I'm smart enough to figure out when it's going to rain and how much I can cut and all the equipment works."
In a stop at East Mountain Farm's small lower barn, Wells shows the mower and baler he tows down to Lowry three times each summer – at least he hopes that he gets to do a third cut each haying season.
During three-day windows starting in May each year, Wells can usually mow, ted, rake and bale between 600 and 800 bales. It varies each year, but to get to a typical 4,200-bale crop, that means he needs about six or seven such three-day windows when the weather will be right for harvest.
"You don't want to get hay rained on," he explained. "That's the killer. Once it gets rained on, it's shot. Then you're looking for a landscaper to take it off your hands for mulch."
Not all the hay from Lowry ends up feeding livestock at East Mountain Farm.
The first-cut hay, which is coarser and not quite as high in energy, is not as beneficial to his cattle herd but is prized by horse owners because the coarser grass is better for a horse's digestion, he says.
He sells most of the first-cut hay in a typical year. The second-and third-cut yield from Lowry and nearby privately-owned field he hays for the landowner are enough to sustain his herd at East Mountain Farm, Wells said.
It is not uncommon for small farmers like Wells to grow a "cash crop" aside from their main operation. In fact, it is the only economic model that keeps most small farmers in business.
In Wells' case, he has two cash crops aside from the beef, pork and chicken at the core of his farm: hay from Lowry and the nearby Carver field and firewood from 128-acre property at East Mountain Farm. Only about 10 acres of the farm are in pasture; the rest is woodland.
"With seven to 10 acres (of pasture) and the feed source, I'm OK," he said.
"As a farmer, you need to have cash crops. The length of time from when you get the animal to when you get paid for the animal is months. You're laying out an incredible amount for fertilizer, feed, fuel costs. And they have all exploded. You need to have a source of cash – a product you can make and sell and get paid for, unless you're set up like a CSA (community-supported agriculture).
"The Chenails have sweet corn and pumpkins. ... For me, those two cash crops are firewood and hay."
Over the last 10 years, hay sales have accounted for 23 percent of East Mountain Farm's gross income, on average, Wells said. The last two years, that percentage has slipped to 17 percent thanks to an increase in the beef herd and a sub-par hay crop last year.
Wells gets enough from his second and third cuts of hay to feed his modest herd of cattle. In a given year, he takes between 14 and 16 animals to slaughter, he said.
Could he buy enough hay to feed those animals? Perhaps, but do not expect him to do it if he loses access to the Lowry Property.
"I can't see going out and buying feed," Wells said. "I wouldn't do it. That's how (East Mountain Farm's former owners) got in trouble. All they did was go out and buy all their feed, and they lost the farm. It's not a good model.
"That's what's been so good about having Lowry. This farm is pretty small, and having Lowry sort of made it into a better launch point. You could do more with what I had here."
If the Lowry Property on Stratton Road was taken out of conservation and Wells lost his license to hay there, the effect would be detrimental but not fatal to East Mountain Farm, he said.
"If this had happened to me 15 years ago, I'd be in real trouble because that was really helpful," he said. "I could probably deal with it now. I'm going to have to look around and see if I could find some other fields, because I don't think there's enough at Carver's to even feed the beef I've got.
"It's too bad because beef is something I've been expanding the last few years as people have gotten more interested in locally grown beef.
"The cash crop end of it would be gone, and that helps pay the bills. The actual beef operation would have to plateau, I guess, at where I am."
A Trend of Acreage Decline
At public meetings and during the private tour of his farm, Wells is quick to frame the issue not in terms of the impact on his operation but in terms of the loss of arable land in town.
"The only point I'd make at a town meeting is this: This piece of property helped a young farmer become a farmer and create a farm," said Wells, a 1978 Williams College graduate who worked on farms in Kentucky before returning to Williamstown in '82. "And I don't think you want to take that opportunity away from someone else because our food system is coming back home, and the more it does, the more you're going to need places like this."
"Places like this" are increasingly hard to find — both nationally and here in the Berkshires.
Pittsfield-based non-profit Sustainable Berkshires reports that between 1997 and 2007, Berkshire County acreage in production decreased by 82 acres. A Washington, D.C., advocacy group, the American Farmland Trust, says the nation loses more than an acre of farmland every minute of every day on average.
The national trend is blamed on "development." The former is linked to the aging farmer population, according a senior planner at the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission who staffs Sustainable Berkshires.
"Most people don't have someone they know who they an pass the farm onto or they're unsure whether someone will keep it as a farm," Amy Kacala said. "Farmers (in the county) are older than in other regions of the state. As we look at people retiring, that's their retirement fund, the land.
"I know of a few farms in North County that are on the market as people are preparing to sell them. There are some farmers who don't participate in the (state's) tax incentive program for agriculture because they want the flexibility to be able to sell.
"The impression of people who have talked to farmers is they are just a few years out (from selling) and that we could have a drastically different landscape."
In an area like the Berkshires, small farms like Wells' East Mountain Farm are the core of the agricultural landscape.
The same Sustainable Berkshires report, based on data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2007 Ag Census, found that the 35 percent of the county's farms are sized between 10 and 49 acres; 31 percent are between 50 and 179 acres — a group that includes East Mountain Farm.
Although Wells has no full-time employees, some farms do. And if agriculture production in the region maintains current levels — or better yet, expands — ag advocates and planners like Kacala envision regional food processing facilities that would create even more jobs. Currently, Wells takes his animals to Eagle Bridge Smokehouse, a custom slaughterhouse 24 miles away in New York's Washington County that produces private-label meat for farmers around the region.
Then there is the hidden economic impact of lost farmland.
"What does that mean to us as a region in terms of tourism dollars?" Kacala asks. "What happens to the sense of character and what makes the Berkshires the Berkshires?
"How many tourism dollars are associated with natural beauty and open land? The Berkshire Tourism Bureau is digging into that, and those dollars are not insignificant."
Meat You Can Trust
Wells is not the only one who stands to lose if he has to cut back or "plateau" production at East Mountain Farm.
The other losers are his customers: the loyal ones who have been buying meat from him for a quarter century, the restaurants who tout "locally grown" food on their menus and those yet to discover the prepackaged meat that Wells has begun selling out chest freezers in his large barn.
Much of the beef he sells goes out by the quarter side or full side, Wells said. But the smaller packages — a two-pound steak or a pound of bacon — represent a potential growth market for East Mountain Farm.
Restaurateurs who purchase his meat include North Adams' Gramercy Bistro and Mezze and Williams Inn in Williamstown.
The front page of Mezze's website features its connection to local farms, and the site lists East Mountain Farm as one of several dozen small farms in Massachusetts, Vermont and New York who supply the high-end eatery.
"It's about connecting people and building community," reads a quote from Mezze co-founder Nancy Thomas. "We are thrilled to be working side-by-side with our local farms."
Perhaps there are is bigger devotee of Wells' beef, pork and pasture-raised chicken than Paola Gentry, a Williams alumna and New Paltz, N.Y., resident who stocks up on visits to her alma mater to see her many friends in the area.
"We get, I would say, 95 percent of our animal protein from Kim," Gentry said.
Gentry is part of the growing "locavore" movement. According to the USDA, direct-to-consumer marketing of locally-produced agriculture amounted to $1.2 billion in sales in 2007, more than twice its share of the industry just 10 years earlier.
"I like going to the farm and seeing where our food comes from," Gentry said. "It drives me nuts that people don't realize where their food comes from.
"We're very respectful of the animals and very respectful of the food we eat. We feel better knowing how they were raised."
Gentry said she and her husband, also a Williams grad, frequently take their children to Wells' farm to see how food is produced.
"We tell them the animals live a beautiful life and just have one sad moment," she said. "It's all part of the circle of life.
"We watch a lot of 'The Lion King,'" she adds with a smile in her voice.
Gentry has been buying from East Mountain Farm for about six years.
Williamstown resident Audrey Thier started buying her meat from Wells 26 years ago.
A locavore like Gentry, Thier buys as much of her produce as she can from the Caretaker Farm CSA and shops at local co-op Wild Oats.
Like many local farmers, Wells relies on 'cash crops,' firewood and hay in his case, along with the farm's staples of beef and pork.
Although she acknowledges that meat from East Mountain Farm may be more expensive than similar products at the grocery store, a small premium is worth it in her estimation.
"Honestly, I don't even pay attention to [price]," she said. "It's important to me to have meat raised the way I want it raised and to have it local. ... If there is a premium, I'd be willing to pay it. It's not something I'd consider."
Thier points to recent incidents of food safety problems in large commercial slaughterhouses as evidence of the value in locally-produced food.
"Two minutes up my road are very happy cows, and they're living good lives up there," she said. "I know they're healthy, and I know the meat will be healthy as a result."
Wells was not surprised by November's announcement that the town was going to try to take the Lowry Property out of conservation and use it for affordable housing. It's not like the idea is entirely new.
"As soon as Irene hit, I didn't have to look at the paper," Wells said. "As soon as it hit, I knew Lowry would be in play. It always is when there's an affordable housing thing."
After Irene, Wells said he stopped doing things like adding the soil amendment potash to keep potassium levels high on the Lowry site. He hated to do it because in the long run it will make the land less productive, but given the current level of uncertainty, it makes less sense to invest heavily in the land.
"If you're not giving back something, you're exhausting the soil of all its nutrients," Wells said. "A lot of guys do that, and pretty soon you see the grass is four inches high, and weeds can grow in that environment. The whole idea is to provide a good soil so the grasses can compete with the invasive weeds like bedstraw and things like that.
"I stopped doing some of the things that if I knew I was going to be there I would be doing."
The whole Lowry Property issue would be more cut and dried if the development planned was a strip mall.
The BRPC's Kacala, while not commenting on the specifics of Wells' situation, noted it is difficult to weigh the need for agricultural land against Williamstown's widely recognized need for affordable housing.
The town's 2002 Master Plan identified a need for 164 more units of affordable (or subsidized) housing. In the intervening 10 years, the town has added fewer than 10 more units, and it lost 153 units of affordable (but unsubsidized) housing sites after the 2011 flooding at the Spruces.
Wells does not deny the need for affordable housing is acute.
At the last Ag Commission meeting, he proposed the panel issue a statement supporting affordable housing development — but with an eye toward brownfields development that keeps agricultural land in tact.
For its part, the Affordable Housing Committee remains focused on a variety of sites, including Lowry and previously developed, or brownfields, locations like the site of the former town garage on Water Street and the former PhoTech Mill property on Cole Avenue.
"I feel Lowry should be saved as farmland," Wells said. "But I also feel like if you solve the affordable housing problem, you take the pressure off it. That's the big thing. I don't think it's fair to say it shouldn't be developed and then not answer the question of how you’re going to address the affordable housing thing.
"If we got serious about funding affordable housing, then Lowry would be out of play."
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