Amherst may work with Kestrel Land Trust to secure community farm rejected by Town Meeting

By SCOTT MERZBACH  (Published in Daily Hampshire Gazette: Friday, November 15, 2013)

AMHERST — A nearly 20-acre parcel being eyed as a community farm may still be acquired by the town, despite Town Meeting’s refusal to appropriate money for its purchase.

Town officials this week said they are working with the Kestrel Land Trust to secure the agricultural land on Belchertown Road with hopes of returning to Town Meeting in the spring to bring the property under town control.

“The bottom line is we’re not giving up on this acquisition,” said Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek. “We’re going to work with partner Kestrel in ways to make sure we don’t lose the opportunity to buy this land.”

Stephanie Ciccarello, sustainability coordinator for Amherst, said the project interests those who want to see more food grown in the community.

“This is still something we very much want to pursue. We think there’s a lot of value in this,” Ciccarello said.

To that end, Ciccarello helped organize a forum Wednesday with members of Grow Food Amherst to discuss strategies for both buying the land and then using it.

Ziomek said the message from Town Meeting is that there are concerns about not going through the usual process for using $41,785 in Community Preservation Act money. Such funds would have been used to obtain a Local Acquisitions for Natural Diversity state grant so the town could purchase the land for $150,950.

Ziomek said he expects to apply for CPA funding in the spring, which has a deadline in mid-December. But with property owner Bob Saul intending to sell the property by the end of the year, Ziomek said, Kestrel could assist in holding it until the town can act.

Ciccarello said there may have been misunderstanding about how the land would have been used. While the town has other conservation areas that are leased to farmers, this would feature learning workshops and demonstrations by students and faculty from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst College and Hampshire College, she said.

The land would also feature a shared community garden, which is different from community garden plots at Amethyst Brook Conservation Area and on Mill Lane.

“The idea is that right now you pay a fee to rent a community garden. There wouldn’t be a fee for this,” Ciccarello said.

People in need would be among the recipients of the fruits and vegetables grown on site which would be donated to places like the Amherst Survival Center.

A mentorship program would bring experienced farmers to the site and serve as an incubator for new farmers, she said. “This will benefit a young farmer starting out.”

Ziomek said the “learning and teaching piece” is essential.

“What makes the difference in the plan for the land is the variety of value-created options for agriculture,” Ziomek said.

Ziomek also spoke to the Amherst School Committee this week concerning the idea is to involve schoolchildren in the farming. The land is within walking distance of Fort River School.

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