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Rhode Island Must Do Better to Preserve Vital Farmlands
New York Ag Connection - 02/23/2024

Avondale Farm Preserve, the site of some of the state’s oldest farmland, was very nearly a parking lot.

The preserve sits on a beautiful 50-acre parcel just 4 miles south of downtown, close to the banks of the Pawcatuck River. Owned and managed by the Westerly Land Trust (WLT) since 1998, it’s a popular local spot for hiking, passive recreation, agriculture, and bird-watching. Every year the property hosts an annual Farm Dinner and 5K race to boost conservation dollars for the land trust.

For much of its history prior to its acquisition and preservation by WLT, Avondale Farm was owned and operated by the Chapman family. It was bought in 1812 by Israel Chapman, and for the next 150 years — more than half the United States’ existence as a country — his descendants used the property to raise cows, pigs, and chickens, and later used the vast fields for haying.

By the mid-1980s there were no more Chapmans left that were interested in continuing the family tradition, and 71 acres of the farm were sold to a New York developer who originally planned to build 108 condominiums on the property, before changing his plans a few years later to construct 43 single-family homes.

“I grew up in Westerly,” said Jennifer Fusco, WLT’s executive director. “Avondale Farm was sort of an old family farm, and when the folks couldn’t run the farm anymore, recognizing it had very high development value at a time when development was booming, Avondale became a developer’s dream.”

The development of Avondale Farm, said Fusco, actually prompted the creation of the Westerly Land Trust, in 1987. In the early days it was focused just on preserving this one piece of farmland. The trust didn’t have any money; it was mostly people sitting around a kitchen table planning ways to help conserve land.

WLT bought Avondale Farm after a decade of public opposition to its development at town meetings, one lawsuit, and an avalanche of private donations from community members. It was the first property preserved by the trust, and Avondale Farm Preserve has become the rock on which the land trust has built its conservation mission.

While most people think of untouched forestland, hiking trails or other outdoor activities when they hear the phrase “land trust,” for many Rhode Island conservation organizations, protecting farmland is a key component of their mission.

For WLT, farmland preservation didn’t stop with Avondale. It also owns the Winnapaug Farm Preserve, which has agricultural land for corn and hay, and the Barlow Nature Preserve, much of which is, as of today, actively being farmed.

Since 2019, the land trust has rented out agricultural land at Barlow Nature Preserve to farmers looking for a place to start. WLT’s current tenants include Frontier Farm, a 2.5-acre vegetable farm established in 2018, and Echo Rock Flowers, a 1-acre flower farm. A third tenant operates a composting business in a greenhouse.

The land trust model of farmland preservation is one that has been growing in popularity nationwide as more and more land is swallowed by development. Land trusts, so long as they maintain their mission of conserving land and making it available to the public, are exempt from the traditional property taxes that come with owning large amounts of land. Thanks to their status as nonprofits, they are immune from development pressure to flip the land into housing or commercial projects, allowing them to lease farmland to new farmers at lower-than-average prices.

“There’s been this terrific evolution for us since 2019,” Fusco said. “We started with these farmers, and now five or six years later we are still working with the same farmers as they expand. It’s a model that has worked for us, and we hope to be able to replicate it.”

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