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by Anne Berleant
The idea of keeping farmland for farming began in 1985, when the Maine State Legislature passed the Agricultural Viability Act. They were worried that Maine was losing farms and farmland to development and importing a high proportion of its food, Paul Birdsall explained in a recent interview. Birdsall, a Penobscot farmer and a founding board member of the Blue Hill Heritage Trust and the Maine Farmland Trust, said the act encouraged trusts to apply for project grants to help identify the current state of agriculture throughout Maine.
Through the Hancock Soil and Water District, of which Birdsall was also a board member, Hancock County partnered with Washington County for a grant to identify problems with local agriculture and how to address them.
“The issue of good soil along Route 15 in Orland, North Penobscot and North Blue Hill—that was one of the things we focused on,” said Birdsall. “That’s where it began.”
The “it” is the Farmland Forever program created by BHHT in 1998, which preserves farmland along the Route 15 corridor through agricultural easements. (Forever Farms started shortly thereafter through MFT, and is now a state agency.)
“Paul’s been a principal visionary leader,” said current BHHT executive director Jim Dow, as was Lorenzo Mitchell, who joined the BHHT board in the mid 1980s and owned land along Route 15.
Why the particular concern over land along the Route 15 corridor? Through soil mapping throughout the state, “we know that…is a good strip of soil,” said Dow.
According to the Maine State Planning Office, the Route 15 corridor from Orland to Blue Hill contains most of the prime agricultural soil in Hancock County (and represents a mere 2.3 percent of all the county’s soils).
Three easements on Route 15 farmland donated to BHHT “broke the ice,” said Birdsall. One of them was from Birdsall’s Horsepower Farm.
“Farmland easements around here were a new thing,” said Dow. “People were used to protecting scenic things, but the idea of protecting working landscapes was a new thing. Some people thought it was a foolish idea.”
Peter Brown donated the second easement, on Ackley Farm, which was being managed primarily for hay at that time, by Birdsall. The third easement came from Mitchell on land he owned on Route 15.
“I think Mitchell played quite a part in what transpired afterwards,” said Birdsall.
These donated easements led to the formation of Farmland Forever, in which BHHT purchases or is given agricultural easements for farmland.
“Our role was to protect the opportunity for farming by protecting the soil for farmers, so [it] wouldn’t grow houses instead,” said Dow.
The first easement bought by BHHT was on what is now Homewood Farm in North Blue Hill. The owner at the time retained ownership of the property; the easement protected the land from development, and it was eventually sold to farmers.
“That’s what I call crossing the Rubicon,” said Birdsall of BHHT’s initial purchase of development rights.
Homewood Farm is one of several “farmland forever” farms along Route 15 in North Penobscot and Blue Hill. Now, over 2,000 acres of prime soil along route 15 is protected through agricultural easements administered by the BHHT, including Old Ackley Farm, Blue-zee Farm, King Hill Farm, Horsepower Farm, Ken-Rose Farm and Quill’s End Farm.
“We didn’t know if the farming community would develop here or not,” said Dow. “Our goal was to preserve the opportunity for local food production on high quality soil.”
When land is purchased with an agricultural easement in place, “it becomes a type of partnership,” said Dow. BHHT retains a “non-possessory interest that gives us the responsibility to enforce restrictions.”
An easement allows farming-types of activities but prohibits residential and commercial development not associated with farming, said Dow. “Our responsibilities are in perpetuity.”
Farms are visited yearly to make sure restrictions, like construction outside of designated woodland and the number of residences on the property, are being adhered to.
For Quill’s End Farm owners Phil and Heather Retberg, this meant that when they wanted to build a barn in their orchard, because it was close to a water supply, their request was turned down. In a recent visit to Quill’s End Farm, they did not seem particularly bothered by the denial. The land had been surveyed before they purchased it, with areas designated as woodland, orchard, and fields.
“It’s like everything else,” said Heather Retberg. “You have a good relationship and stay in open communication.”