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The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources Does Not Effectively Monitor the Use of Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program Farmland.

Audit calls for annual monitoring of APR farmland.

Table of Contents

Overview

The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) does not routinely monitor Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) Program farmland to ensure that it is operated in accordance with APR Program contract requirements. Specifically, out of a statistical sample of 60 parcels that we visited, 42 (70%) of the parcel owners said that they had had no contact with MDAR, including monitoring visits, for periods ranging from 2 to 25 years. Those who said they had had contact with MDAR stated that they were contacted regarding baseline monitoring reports (BMRs) or in response to applications for grants to make capital improvements. Based on our sampling method, with a 95% confidence, we concluded that between 237 and 328 farms of more than 30 acres that were not part of the Agricultural Land Easements (ALE) program were not sufficiently monitored by MDAR. Without routinely monitoring these farmland parcels, MDAR cannot ensure that APR Program farmland is properly used for agricultural purposes, and the agency forgoes opportunities to meet with participating farmers to share information. Further, this lack of monitoring could result in significant abuses going undetected, such as illegal dumping, vandalizing of the infrastructure and buildings, and other activities that may damage the soil and make the land no longer suitable for agricultural use.

Authoritative Guidance

Section F of the APR/ALE Program agreement entered into by MDAR, the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and farmers states that MDAR “will . . . annually monitor the Premises ensuring that active farm operations are in compliance with the NRCS conservation plan and in compliance with this Restriction.” Although MDAR is only required to annually monitor the 298 parcels that were purchased using NRCS funds, this requirement represents a best practice that we believe MDAR should follow for all parcels in the APR Program. MDAR’s standard APR Program contract gives MDAR the authority to enter APR Program parcels, including buildings and other structures, with prior notice, to determine whether farmers comply with the APR Program contract, and its regulations allow it to impose financial penalties if violations are identified.

Reasons for Issues

MDAR personnel stated that because of a lack of resources, they cannot regularly monitor all APR Program farmland and can only visit farms if they are contacted by a farmland owner for a specific purpose, such as to alter a provision of an APR Program contract. In many cases, BMRs produced when farmers are first accepted into the APR Program are MDAR’s only source of information about the state of an APR Program farmland parcel. MDAR has not developed policies and procedures for monitoring the state-financed farmland parcels.

Recommendation

MDAR should develop policies and procedures that require the annual monitoring of APR Program parcels. Depending on MDAR’s available resources, this could include such things as a combination of farm visits, telephone calls, email inquiries, and satellite tracking of farmland use.

Auditee’s Response

As the audit report indicates, annual monitoring of APR land is mandatory only under federally funded APRs, pursuant to terms required by the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Nevertheless, MDAR acknowledges that adequate monitoring is a key component of ensuring the continued agricultural viability of APR land and preventing abandonment or other issues that could lead to enforcement actions.

MDAR’s monitoring efforts to date have focused on conducting site visits in the course of responding to and processing requests for grant funding, certificates of approvals or special permits, developing a routine monitoring schedule for all federally funded APRs and completing the baseline monitoring for all 909 APR properties. Of the 60 APR farms sampled as part of the audit the majority have had contact with the APR program through these types of requests. Of the 60 farms sampled as part of the audit, all of the APR farms have had an APR baseline report completed. By the end of FY2018 we anticipate that all 909 APRs will have had a baseline document created. Because baseline monitoring reports will provide solid documentation of a farm’s baseline conditions, MDAR will now shift its focus to conducting regular monitoring of APRs without a Federal component (i.e., state-funded APRs). In the Spring of 2018, MDAR contracted to monitor 51 non-federally funded APRs that had closed between 1980 and 1987. These monitoring reports are due by the end of FY 2018 and will provide a formal update on any changes to the APR property since the completion of the baseline monitoring report. The intent moving forward is to reallocate stewardship funds that were being spent on the baseline monitoring reports to focus on monitoring non-federally co-held APRs.

Date published: August 22, 2018
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