In West Bridgewater, farming in perpetuity
By Rich Fahey
Spring arrived late in West Bridgewater. Then came the heavy rains of April and May.
The cold, wet soil has made planting more difficult, leading to some unusually long work days for Lynn and Pete Reading, owners of C&C Reading Farm.
“We were out here yesterday from 5:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.,” said Lynn Reading on a recent weekday. “It’s a good thing ‘Farmer Pete’ has lights on that tractor.”
Still, the Readings wouldn’t think of trading places with anyone, and with an assist from the state, the town, and a nonprofit conservation agency, the land they are cultivating will remain a farm forever.
The Readings’ 74-acre parcel off Route 106 used to be known as the Hayward Dairy Farm, named after a family that provided milk to West Bridgewater and surrounding towns for nearly 300 years.
After farming the land for 11 generations, the family sold the property in 1973 to a company that became the Shaw’s supermarket chain. Shaw’s sold it in 1995 to the Tara Realty Trust, which considered such options as a large commercial warehouse, a big box retailer, and a solar farm, but the property remained undeveloped.
In the meantime, the land was cultivated for hay, supporting a dairy herd owned by the abutting farmers, the Bertarellis, who have also grown corn there.
Recognizing that this rural land could be lost to development, the nonprofit Trust for Public Land got involved. The agency says it has protected more than 3 million acres nationwide for conservation.
Under the guidance of project manager Darci Schofield, the trust began negotiating with Tara to buy the property, with the intention of taking advantage of Massachusetts’ Agricultural Protection Restriction Program.
Under the program, approved in 1979, the state pays farmland owners the difference between the “fair market value” and the “agricultural value,” which is usually much lower. The state places a permanent deed restriction that keeps the property as farmland in perpetuity, and the property owner gets a price comparable to developable land, without having to clear permitting and other procedural hurdles.
But before disbursing the money, the state requires that the town or a private group provide some money to bring the purchase price closer to the fair market value, or the property owner must agree to a discount.
The property initially was appraised at $1.48 million, and Tara reduced the price to $1.13 million. The purchase was covered by $945,000 of state money and $185,000 from the Readings.
For cash-strapped communities, such agreements are a bit of a tradeoff, because farmland is taxed at a much lower rate than commercially developed land.
However, the outcome pleased West Bridgewater Finance Committee member Stephen Currier, who had opposed a proposal, which ultimately failed at Town Meeting, to spend town money on the project.
“As a town, I thought we had other priorities than the farm,” said Currier. “Now I think things have overall worked out okay,” and that retaining the farm is “the ideal situation” for all concerned.
“I think the farm adds some character to the town,” he said.
From the state’s point of view, the property is worth protecting because of its outstanding soil and the state’s desire to preserve community farms in Southeastern Massachusetts, said Chris Chisholm, an official of the state Department of Agricultural Resources.
Meanwhile, the Trust for Public Land has more farms in its sights. In Bridgewater, the organization will make a presentation before the Community Preservation Committee on June 19 regarding an agricultural preservation restriction on the Murray Needs Farm, which is currently being leased to the Hanson Farm and Sugar Hill Dairy.
In West Bridgewater, the Readings — “Miss Lynn” and “Farmer Pete” as they are known to each other — had been looking to rent some land and called Chisholm to see if any was available. Chisholm told them that some land was coming up for sale in West Bridgewater, and later introduced them to Schofield of the Trust for Public Land.
The deal was finalized on Feb. 12, and the couple named the farm after their daughters, Cara and Christie.
“We struggled for more than 14 years to buy a farm, but everything was too expensive,” said Pete Reading, who is 58.
“We fell in love with the property as soon as we saw it,” Lynn Reading, 57, said of the West Bridgewater land.
The Readings, who are lifelong Pembroke residents, already operate Billingsgate Farm on Route 106 in Plympton, leasing land owned by their longtime landlords, Jerry and Maureen Sheehan.
“I am so happy that Lynn and Pete were able to fulfill a longtime dream of owning their own piece of soil to cultivate,” Chisholm said.
The agricultural restrictions don’t prevent farmers such as the Readings from eventually selling their property, but the new owner would have to farm it or lease it to another farmer.
In recent weeks, the Readings have been lining up seasonal help. They are planting beets, beans, radishes, carrots, potatoes, and tomatoes, and are making plans for apples, tomatoes, pumpkins, squash, and strawberries.
An area that will be certified organic already has organic oats planted and field peas that will act as fertilizer.
The Readings will sell produce this summer and fall from a temporary trailer while work begins on a more permanent farmstand.
“We’ll still be picking and selling the same day,” said Peter Reading.
By definition, a farmer is an optimist, and the Readings are looking forward to a streak of good weather, which has been scarce this spring. They seem prepared for whatever Mother Nature has in store for them.
“We have a lot to be thankful for,” said Lynn Reading.
Rich Fahey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.