For twenty years, Brian and Alice McGowan provided extraordinary ornamental plants to gardeners all over the northeast at their nursery, Blue Meadow Farm, located on some of the richest soil in the Connecticut Valley on Montague’s Meadow Road. When the McGowans moved out of town in 2007, the farm—which consists of a barn and farm buildings but no house—remained empty, awaiting new farmers to continue the McGowans’ stewardship.
Ryan and Sarah Voiland, co-owners of Granby’s Red Fire Farm, have now purchased the property, and intend to gradually move much of Red Fire Farm’s operations north, back to the town where Ryan began selling organic vegetables at his farmstand in 1990.
A tour of the new farm site this summer brought CSA and land
trust members together to see the fields and greenhouses and
the Sawmill River, which flows past the farm.
The business has grown since then, with Red Fire Farm now serving more than 1,300 Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shareholders as well as selling at farmer’s markets and farmstands. Red Fire Farm has been in Granby since 2001, but due to development pressure and limited tracts of good land in their Carver Street neighborhood, the Voilands felt it was important to add the Montague farm to keep their farm business viable.
Ryan and Sarah purchased the larger Tuvek Farm, also on Meadow Road, in 2010. The nursery adds ten acres of additional prime farming soils as well as six greenhouses, a packing shed, and office space. The additional farm buildings were a large part of the attraction for the Voilands since they would allow a rapid start up for the new farm.
To complete the purchase, the Voilands turned to Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, which worked with the couple to make the case for protecting the farm with an agricultural preservation restriction (APR), a conservation easement which guarantees that the land will remain in use for farming and that the development rights will be exstinguished. In addition to preventing development of farm properties, APRs lower the price of the land, making it easier for young farmers to buy new farms.
The Massachusetts Agricultural Lands Preservation Committee voted in March 2010 in favor of eventually purchasing an APR on the Blue Meadow Nursery property. With the APR financing assured, the Voilands purchased the property. Mount Grace then bought the development rights and re-sold them to the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources in the 2011 fiscal year.
The completion of the sale brings Red Fire Farm one step closer to a successful return to Franklin County, and helps keep agriculture viable at a landmark Montague farm. As Ryan says: “This is quite possibly a once in a lifetime chance to secure some of the best vegetable farm land in the world. We are looking forward to transitioning this land to certified organic farming practices and planting the acreage with berries and vegetables during the next couple of seasons!”
Even with an APR in place, Massachusetts farmland can still be too expensive for farmers. Massachusetts has the most expensive farmland in the nation--more than $12,000 per acre on average. To keep the land in agriculture, Mount Grace and Red Fire Farm are working in partnership on a new model for New England farms based on the concept of whole farm affordability. Under the proposed model, Mount Grace will own the cropland, and Red Fire Farm will own the buildings. Mount Grace will then grant a 99-year lease on the land at a rate that keeps farming viable.
Produce from Red Fire Farm is available this season at CSA distributions in Amherst at Tabella Restaurant and in Northampton at the Hungry Ghost Bakery. Produce is also available as part of the Common Wealth CSA cooperative in downtown Greenfield, and at the Montague (Old Depot Gardens) farm stand.