Creating Accessible Farmland
Weather, weeds and pests. Working farmers face incredible foes, not to mention the public’s changing desires, labor costs and complicated cost/price determinations. Yet many of those ready to confront all of these challenges still lack the one thing keeping them from attempting their dream: workable land.
A lucky handful, five individuals drawn by lottery, can, for $200 each, lease a 30-foot x 50-foot plot of tilled ground at the historic Putnam Farm Conservation Area, near the Orleans/Eastham Route 6 rotary. For what may be the first time in Massachusetts’ history, town-owned conservation land will be available to passionate wannabe farmers.
Since the 1950s, this 13-acre tract was part of a working farm and nursery owned by the Putnam family. The offering of this property for sale in 2008 caught the eye of the then-Chair of the Orleans Open Space Committee, Alan McClennen. He felt so strongly that the town of Orleans should purchase it that he backed this unique project for a decade.
“Alan McClennen was the spark plug that got this whole baby going,” says David Light, Chair of the Orleans Agricultural Advisory Council since 2012.
McClennen, who served as the town of Arlington, Massachusetts’ Chairman of Planning and Development for 30 years, had intended to spend his retirement years on Cape Cod satisfying his passion for wooden boat building. That is, until he stepped into the Orleans Town Hall. It took about four months to wear him down, and in 2004, he was convinced to join the Land Bank Committee.
McClennen says, “I’m an idea man. In my whole career that has been the most exciting thing to me. I bring a concept to the table and others pick it up and take it away, and bring it to completion.”
McClennen’s open space acquisitions for Orleans included The John Kendrick Woods in South Orleans, and another stretch of land actually located in Brewster, but purchased to protect Orleans’ well water fields. The ad for the sale of the Putnam property got his attention because of its possible link to historical preservation. Upon further research, it was proved to indeed be pristine land that had been farmed for hundreds of years, devoid of buildings other than a single barn brought to the property and several remnants of greenhouses and hoop houses decaying nearby.
McClennen was joined in passionately committing to the Putnam campaign by David Light and the other members of the Orleans Agricultural Advisory Council: Gretel Norgeot, Steve Ellis, Judy Scanlon, Darnell Caffoni, and Barbara Dean, all first-rate farmers themselves. Orleans Selectman John Fuller served as the liaison to the town. All saw the opportunity in acquiring this parcel as a way to continue Cape Cod’s agricultural history.
The property had been used solely for farming since the 1700s, and when tested, the soil proved free from hazardous materials. Originally semi-rolling terrain, the Putnam family had separated the gravel found underneath the topsoil layer and sold it to the Mass DPW in the 1950s to shore up the marshland at the Eastham/Orleans town line, forming a substructure for the current Route 6 rotary.
There is no easy access to the property, and the panhandle shape of the acreage plus its location partially within flood plain lines all factored into making this expanse of land inappropriate for housing development.
History geeks will love knowing that the northern edge of the property borders the path of Jeremiah’s Gutter, a marsh creek, which, before it was filled in to provide footing for a railroad route, ran from the Cape Cod Bay to the Orleans town cove and on to the Atlantic. “Essentially, it was the very first Cape Cod canal,” smiles McClennen. During the War of 1812 when British ships blockaded Cape Cod Bay, locals were able to continue shipping and receiving goods via the Atlantic by hauling small boats loaded with their goods through this shallow but then-working waterway. A century before that, when the Whydah pirate ship went down in 1717, the British governor sent troops by way of the gutter to investigate the wreck’s treasure, but they returned empty-handed.
“Putnam Farm is a hidden 13 acres, just a fascinating property,” says McClennen. “It’s peace and quiet. I knew a man who took his elderly dad there for years, letting him out of the car alone just to enjoy his evening nature walk and time in this space.”
The town of Orleans negotiated a purchase price of $360,000 with the Putnam family in 2010. These funds originated from The Open Space Committee account. “What was critical, however, for the property agreement, was the foresight we had in the wording,” says McClennen. “We inserted specifications requiring that the land be used for conservation, open space, passive recreation and/or agriculture.”
$47,000 in agricultural grant money was used, bolstered with hours of volunteer sweat equity, to clean up the area. This meant ridding the land of the rusted skeletons of greenhouses, broken glass and overgrown plants. Creative budgeting swapped out the disassembling and removal costs of the old metal structures with surrendering the steel to the contractors for salvaging. The farm’s sole barn was rented out for events in the ‘60s and ‘70s to “some families and way out groups,” says McClennen. “We found trailers, other old vehicles and the residue of these happenings that had to be hauled away, too.”
Energized town citizens and Americorps volunteers united to clear the land of invasive species. Husband and wife Gretel and Jeff Norgeot, “were, as usual, just the consummate volunteers,” says McClennen. “After finishing one of his workdays, Jeff rumbled in driving a huge front loader, and we were able to dig out enormous quantities of Russian Olives that had overrun one end of the property.”
The Putnam Farm lands were assigned over to the jurisdiction of the Orleans Conservation Commission, and Conservation Administrator John Jannell took the reins from there. Jannell insists he is simply doing a job he loves, but his colleagues see otherwise. Both McClennen and Light effuse praise for his diligence and follow-through on executing the multiple demands of the proposal.
Gaining legal access to the land posed the preeminent challenge of the overall design, and took several years to negotiate. A right of way would need a trifecta of approvals between the town of Orleans, Barnstable County, and EverSource, who owned some access right of ways that would need to be traversed.
The five side-by-side rectangles that were chosen for the initial farming test plots were selected because of their elevation. Soil was leveled and a compost layer spread last fall that will soon be plowed under. It’s estimated that the area devoted to growing could, in the future, be increased to triple the amount of its initial square footage.
No commercial activities such as direct sales or farm stands can occur on the property proper, and the growing of cannabis is prohibited by town statutes. Otherwise, what you do with your harvest once it’s off the property is up to you. Feed your family and friends, jar pickles, donate to food pantries, or try hawking your crops at a local farmers’ market.
The land itself, which will retain the historical Putnam Farm name, is adjacent to the Orleans District Court Building, on Rock Harbor Road. A narrow road next to the bike trail access was created just as this issue went to press. Water lines are in place, with each grower having full access and a unique faucet. One critical aspect in determining the lease fees was estimating water usage, which will fluctuate with annual temperature and precipitation. Ag Chairman David Light’s personally recorded annual rainfall records from his farmland in Orleans were used to help gauge irrigation costs.
Growers are asked to use safe chemicals and are required to keep weeds at bay. Plowing and tilling, if desired, are the responsibilities of each individual, using their own tools. A spot for each grower’s vehicle will be marked near their plot, with additional parking available for the public outside of the direct farming area. It’s already in the plan that hives will be placed onsite to foster the good work that local bees can do for the environment.
Partial funding of the project was provided through State of Massachusetts grants, therefore notices announcing the farmland lottery were advertised to state residents. In addition, the public must have access to view the farmland. Individual growing plots may be fenced, but not locked shut to provide access for visits. Only responsible pet walking is permitted on the property, with a sanitary doggy bag dispenser already in place.
A wide variety of creatures visit the spot including fox, turkeys, coyotes and deer, which will have most of the growers wanting fence protection for their crops. The fence choice, cost and installation is to be determined by each individual tenant, as will any temporary structures such as hoop houses, raised beds or trellises for vertical support. This being the initial trial, the term will span late March 2018 through mid-November 2018. In subsequent years, it will be a full annual commitment beginning each November 15. As long as rules are adhered to, each renter will have to right of first refusal for the rental of his/her same plot, as well as the opportunity to apply via lottery for additional land the next year.
Who knows how the first five growers will reap their fortunes? At least now they can get their hands dirty trying.