Not Enough Acres Farm

By Mary Blair Petiet | February 02, 2009
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As a teenager in the mid 1970s, Jeff Deck moved from Livingston, New Jersey to Cape Cod. His father, an architect, relocated his family to participate in the Cape-wide building boom burgeoning at the time. Over 30 years later and today the proprietor of Not Enough Acres Farm in Dennis, Jeff is relocating again with an eye toward opportunity elsewhere. He is convinced that in western Massachusetts, he will find the space he currently lacks to establish the sustainable farm of his dreams.

For 26 years, Jeff worked locally as a landscape contractor. For 17 of those years, he owned Sesuit Landscaping. Jeff claims, “The step from landscaping to farming was not wide,” and emphasizes that in both capacities he acted organically. He always grew vegetables and kept chickens with an eye towards sustainability. In 1980 he married Beth Crowell, whose family has farmed the same land in Sesuit since the early 18th century, having received the 500-foot wide acreage from Cape Cod Bay to Sesuit Creek as part of the c. 1710 King’s Division. Ever since, the Crowells have passed the land down from Seth to Nathan, alternating names passed from father to son with only one exception; the 30 odd years that Beth’s father, Seth Crowell, was away for economic reasons, during which his Aunt Blanche Crowell held down the fort.

When they married, the Decks bought the house at Not Enough Acres from Beth’s father and aunt. The house dates to 1928 and at the time needed considerable updating. Today it has been modernized and the Decks built the barn behind it three years ago. Their house, which came with 4-1/8th acres of land, is situated across the street from Beth’s father’s old farmhouse that sits on just over three acres.

The farm’s name, Not Enough Acres, is a reference to the key problem encountered by the Decks—they need more space. Right now, their vegetable yield, grown on one acre, is equivalent to what they could get from three acres as a result of the close spacing of rows and Jeff’s intensive gardening methods. The driveway leading to their house is lined with beehives that produce delicious golden nectar. They are, additionally, a fiber farm, with six Shetland and Shetland Icelandic sheep that can produce between 45 to 50 lbs. of wool per year.

Jeff also has fruit trees and more vegetables across the street on his father-in-law’s land.  The produce from Jeff’s gardens is as beautiful and delicious as it is diverse.  Instead of concentrating on specific plants, he grows an incredible assortment of vegetables and even produces greens through most of the winter in the unheated hoop frame between his house and barn. He has also become an important presence at the Mid-Cape Farmers Market where his displays highlight the simple aesthetic of the local movement.

The Deck’s small farm sits next door to 26 acres of land from the original King’s Division. Bill Crowell, a relative whom Jeff describes as a traditional New Englander and an old Cape Codder in his late 70s, owns the land. In 2000, when the yearly taxes on the property became too much for Bill to manage without depleting his savings, he decided to put 23 of his 26 acres into conservation. Apparently, throughout the negotiations with the Dennis Conservation Trust, Bill thought he would still be able to use the land agriculturally. When Jeff sold his landscaping business and dedicated himself to farming full time, he asked Bill if he could graze his sheep on Bill’s property. Bill agreed. Jeff also asked Bill if he could buy enough land from him to expand and get the five-acre farm tax break on his land, at which point Bill offered to give him a sizable chunk of his field.

Having been given the go-ahead from Bill, the Decks approached the Dennis Conservation Trust and unknowingly opened Pandora’s box. Written into the Sesuit Neck Conservation Restriction Bill Crowell signed are the following two details under Prohibited Uses and Reserved Rights:

9) Conveyance of a part or portion of the premise alone, or division or subdivision of the premises (as compared to conveyance of the premises in its entirety which shall be permitted) without prior written consent of the Grantee.

10) Animal husbandry through the use of stables, paddocks, grazing areas or other enclosures, and the storage or dumping of manure or other animal wastes within the premises.

This is controversial because Bill is convinced he did not know he would lose the right to farm and now wonders if he was misled. When the Decks approached Conservation with their plans, they were first told that Bill could not give them the land, and then they were told the land could never be farmed. Jeff’s lawyer has established that the document cannot be amended.

When Conservation came for their yearly check to see that land was being treated according to contract, they cited several violations including the apparent establishment of a stump dump in the wake of the December gale. Jeff Deck says this is ironic as 16 acres of both his and Bill’s conservation land bordering the marsh have been rendered a huge stump dump by the Salt Marsh Restoration Project.  In the interests of re-establishing the former marsh, the project, which is the largest of its kind, has flooded the former bog area and has killed the trees on the site. Jeff cites the result: a huge stump dump that seems to have gone unnoticed by any authorities. Although Conservation advised Jeff to work out a plan to show how the acreage could be used agriculturally to everyone’s satisfaction, they would not entertain any suggestions until the land was brought back into compliance with the removal of the stump dump. Bill, who lives in Rome, New York, refused to comply. This left the Decks caught in a no-win situation.

There is a definite need for conservation, especially on overbuilt and over-utilized Cape Cod. Town-wide conservation is performing a crucial service not only for the current occupants of our narrow sand spit, but for future generations as well. When residents put their land into conservation they are ensuring its intact survival. This benefits man and beast; man will always have open space and views, wildlife will retain some habitat. The tricky part is establishing how the land will be treated. Jeff says, “The Conservation Trust is narrowly focused on wildlife. They have no interest in the farming end or history of the property.”

The goal of conservation is to preserve land, but perhaps that should not be incompatible with agriculture. At the time of earliest discovery by Europeans, the land on Cape Cod had already been under Native American cultivation for generations. What appeared to the explorers a pristine wilderness was in fact a vast garden and game park. The colonists continued cultivating and kept livestock, as every stone wall we see attests. So, when the current generation strives to preserve what is left by deeming it untouchable, we may be citing a non-existent precedent. We do not need to revert to primeval virgin wilderness. Instead we need to consider how to preserve the land while allowing its reasonable cultivation. This could mean strategic grazing of sheep at appropriate seasons so as not to cause unnecessary disturbance of grass. Done properly, this grazing could eliminate the need for Conservation to mow open space periodically to ensure it remains open. As for farming, it should be possible to grow organic crops among the acres of protected land. Songbirds and other wildlife could flourish in the edge spaces between the cultivated fields, and the fields themselves could be positioned with consideration to the habitat needs of wildlife. Combining conservation with agriculture would be a huge stride forward to increasing Cape Cod’s sustainability and is more historically accurate than just letting spaces grow wild.

Sadly, because they are unable to obtain enough acres to make a living on their ancestral land, the Deck family is leaving the land altogether. The most expedient way for them to be able to achieve the sustainability and security they want is to move to Western Massachusetts where they can have the space they need and own land outright, unencumbered by any possible future inheritance issues. So Jeff, Beth and their children have put Not Enough Acres on the market and as of this writing have all but chosen a 50-acre farm in the Berkshires.

Bill remains surprised that the conservation document he signed forbids agricultural use of the land. As a senior Cape Codder worried about taxes and aware of land scarcity, he entered the agreement with the best of intentions. It is also fair to assume Conservation proffered the agreement in the same spirit. It is possible Bill misunderstood what was at stake when he signed the papers. The lesson here is perhaps that conservation does not have to be an all or nothing proposition. Additionally, when agreements are drawn up to put land into conservation, the details as to how the land will subsequently be treated need to be made very clear. Bill could have written into his agreement that agriculture could continue on the land after it went into conservation, as have other Dennis farmers. The landowner does have some say in these conditions. Furthermore, in the future, perhaps conservation and agriculture can be seen as mutually inclusive options.

The Decks are not completely cutting their ties to home. They will be back to visit and will maintain their family ties here. The land they are leaving will continue to look like historic Cape Cod and will never be developed. Jeff is even positive about the Cape’s agricultural prospects, stating that “the future is still bright for farmers and the County Farm offers great opportunity.”

The farming community will certainly miss Not Enough Acres. The hope is to not lose more farmers through lack of opportunity.

Article from Edible Cape Cod at http://ediblecapecod.ediblecommunities.com/food-thought/not-enough-acres-farm
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