Agricultural Preservation
Case Study

Town of Amherst
Agricultural Commission

The Town of Amherst has been incredibly successful in preserving large amounts of its working farmland through a variety of techniques. The Town has taken a comprehensive approach to ensuring that agriculture remains a vital and important sector throughout the community. A number of tools and techniques have played a role in this success particularly the Agricultural Land Preservation (APR) Program; allowing more flexibility for accessory uses like farm stands; supporting a farmers market and community gardens; using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and requiring cluster subdivisions in the Farmland Conservation Overlay District.

The Mitchell farm was protected through an APR.
Photo: Niels laCour
Farm in Amherst

Success Stories

Amherst has been very pro-active in permanently protecting its farms, beginning in the 1970s. The Town, in concert with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, drafted a comprehensive farmland preservation plan that helped launch many of these efforts. By identifying valuable farms and working with the Commonwealth and with willing land owners, 34 farms totaling over 2,000 acres have been permanently protected from development. In addition, the Town has purchased a number of parcels of farmland as conservation land or received them as gifts and now rent them out to local farmers. For example, the Town has leased a farm to a group of Cambodian immigrants, who mostly live in apartments, allowing them the opportunity to farm. Matching funds for state agricultural preservation restriction (APR) purchases have come from Town appropriations, the Community Preservation Act, and local land trusts. In one case, the Brookfield Farm Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), the Town purchased the APR without state assistance at a "bargain sale" price made possible by the generosity of the owners. Under the APR program the farms remain in private ownership and in active agricultural production, but the potential for development is gone.

Amherst's bustling farmers market.
Photo: Niels la Cour
Farmers Market

The Town has allowed the farmers market to use the central town common and the conservation commission administers five different community gardens. By adopting less restrictive regulations than the state's on certain accessory uses, Amherst has been able to encourage and facilitate uses like farm stands and seasonal restaurants that support the primary farming operation and bring in additional income. Amherst was an early leader in developing a local Geographic Information System (GIS) that identifies all parcels in Town, including all farmland. The database identifies acreage, ownership, and many other attributes of each parcel. This has allowed analysis and easy identification of the blocks of active farmland in Town.

For the Amherst GIS for Planning Amherst Together, November 15, 2006 map, click here.

A farm off North East Street.
Photo: Niels la Cour
Farm Fields

Lastly, Amherst has developed a truly innovative zoning provision to protect important farms-the Farmland Conservation Overlay District. This bylaw was adopted in 1989 and requires that any development within the district be clustered, thereby preserving the most important agricultural soils. When considering which land to include in the district, the Planning Board and Agricultural Commission looked at the amount of prime agricultural soils on a parcel, the proximity to major blocks of farmland, the size of the parcel, the degree of development risk and other factors. There has been one farmland conservation development to date- Barkowski Meadows. On the 35 acre parcel, 23 contiguous acres were permanently protected. Seventeen building lots were created and 14 houses have been built. The site is adjacent to the North Amherst Community Farm, an APR-protected CSA farm.