July 19, 2018
 
Essex County Greenbelt Assn. Gets $1M to Protect Farms

January 5, 2018 — The Essex County Greenbelt Association, a nonprofit based in Essex that works with landowners and the 34 cities and towns of Essex County to conserve open space, farmland, wildlife habitat, and scenic landscapes, this week announced it has been awarded $1,050,000 to protect working farms.

The Essex County Greenbelt Association (ECGA) said the funding, from the United State Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, will provide "important seed funding to permanently protect working farms in the Merrimack River valley...[and] keep farming a vital part of the region’s landscape and economy."

“This award is a tremendous affirmation of the significance of the Merrimack Valley’s remaining working farms,” said Ed Becker, ECGA president. “We need to do everything we can to partner with local farmers to keep their farms viable, and to keep their land available to grow food and fiber for future generations.”

The main focus of the project will be voluntary agricultural land easement acquisition. In addition, Greenbelt and its partners will collaborate on a series of free workshops providing resources to both young and senior farmers.

Over the 5-year project term, project partners Land for Good, Massachusetts Dept. of Agricultural Resources, National Young Farmers Coalition, Merrimack River Watershed Council, and the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project will collaborate on educational programming on topics including farm business planning, how to find farmland to buy and lease, and farm succession planning.

According to Land for Good, nearly 30% of Massachusetts farmers are likely to exit farming in the next decade, and 90% of retiring farmers don’t have a young farmer lined up to take over.

High land values make these family farms extremely vulnerable to development, and ECGA estimates that several thousand acres of unprotected farmland in the Merrimack Valley could change hands in the near future. The award will allow Greenbelt to offer farmers the opportunity to keep their farms farming, forever.

“The lower Merrimack watershed, like many other parts of Massachusetts, is seeing rapid urbanization, high land values and aging landowners, all of which make the area’s farms and farmland vulnerable to development,” said Christine Clarke, Massachusetts state conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. “This project will help stem the loss of farmland and its potential impact on water quality and wildlife habitat.”

The Merrimack River was named by American Rivers as one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the country due to development pressure. According to ECGA, tens of thousands people rely on the Merrimack River and its associated streams for drinking water, and that limiting development on lands that surround these waterways is critical to keeping drinking water clean.

“The loss of Merrimack Valley farmland would have tremendous adverse impacts upon the critical soil, water, and other natural resources upon which Essex County residents and farms depend,” said Becker.

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