Smart Growth / Smart Energy Toolkit Modules - Agricultural Preservation

Learn about the Smart Growth/Smart Energy Agricultural Preservation module.


Preserving agricultural land and farming in Massachusetts has been a high priority of state and local officials for several decades. Through a variety of state and local initiatives, opportunities have emerged to help ensure a viable agricultural economy and farmland preservation. Many communities have successfully protected agricultural land using an array of financial and legal tools.

The Problem

We are losing agricultural lands and farming opportunities at an alarming rate. These losses create issues such as:

  • dramatic alteration of the traditional New England landscape
  • A growing dependence on imported food products, and
  • A commitment to spending an ever-increasing portion of our food costs on transportation of these products.

Over 16,000 acres of open space is developed and lost in Massachusetts each year, much of it existing or retired farmland. These lands represent a tremendous cultural and historic resource for rural and suburban communities throughout the Commonwealth.

High real estate values in Massachusetts, along with the steady decrease in buildable areas, have increased pressure to develop what remains of agricultural open spaces in many communities. Lands that have been used historically for farming or pasture, but lie in residential or commercial zones, are often considered "prime real estate" to the development community. These areas are generally clear of forest and have topography well-suited to a variety of land use developments.

High land values has made it very attractive for existing farmers, orchard owners or other agricultural enterprises to sell these lands to private developers. Most communities don't have the funds to "match" a developer's offer resulting in farmlands being converted into residential subdivisions at the expense of viewsheds, open space, local agricultural production and community character.

Pressure to develop residentially zoned agricultural land in Massachusetts is enormous. Despite the existence of several state programs designed to maintain or preserve existing farmland, thousands of acres of these lands are vulnerable to prospective sprawl development. Communities should use the Open Space and Recreation Plan process to identify existing agricultural lands that should be preserved and the tools that would be most effective toward that goal.

Image taken from Above and Beyond, Visualizing Change in Small Towns and Rural Areas. Campoli et, al. APA Planners Press, 2001

Introduction to Agricultural Preservation

The goals of agricultural preservation in Massachusetts vary depending on the unique situations of each community.

  • In some rural communities, the goal of agricultural preservation is to enable existing farmlands to remain viable through the use of restrictions programs and marketing projects or tax breaks.
  • Other more suburban communities may want to see existing agricultural lands developed in ways that decrease the impacts from conventional subdivision activity and preserve significant amounts of the open areas.
  • In urban areas, the focus may be less on preservation and more on providing access to agricultural opportunities not often found in densely developed areas.

There are a variety of ways to protect or promote agricultural opportunities in Massachusetts. The tools that are used will depend on the opportunities faced by a community and their goals for preserving or creating agricultural spaces:

Chapter 61A - The Chapter 61 Program provides a tax break to owners of recreational, forest or agricultural lands as long as the land remains in the specified use. It is important to note that Chapter 61 is an incentive program not a permanent protection of open space or farmland. Local planners should assume that all of theses lands in their community have development potential. Changes were made to this law in 2006.

Agricultural Commissions - These Commissions are formed by passing a local bylaw or ordinance and serve as advocates for local farms. Responsibilities can include protecting farmland, providing assistance for natural resource management, affording visibility to local farmers, and assisting local boards with community development decisions. Ninety-one cities and towns have established Agricultural Commissions. 

Right to Farm - The Right to Farm is vested in all residents of the Commonwealth under Article 97 of the state Constitution. Communities interested in formally re-asserting that right within the community may pass a Right to Farm Bylaw that clearly states the priorities of the community relative to fostering agricultural activities and allowing farms to operate "with minimal conflict with abutters and Town agencies". The bylaw/ordinance also establishes the notification procedure for informing all residents of the Town of the community's status as a Right to Farm entity. You can view a list of communities with a Right-to-Farm Bylaw.

Agricultural Preservation Restrictions (APRs) - This program is designed to protect the most productive agricultural lands in the Commonwealth and establishes permanent deed restrictions on agricultural lands, protecting them from any use that might diminish the area's agricultural potential. These deed restrictions are purchased with state funds that can be matched to some extent by municipal and in some cases federal funding as well.

Community Gardens - Community Garden programs have been successfully developed in cities such as Somerville and Lowell and provide residents with an opportunity to grow food or horticultural varieties in heavily urbanized settings. Gardens are often managed by community groups who allocate specific plots of land to citizens on an annual basis. These areas also provide community gathering for cultural and educational events.

Farm Viability Enhancement Program (FVEP)- The purpose of the FVEP is to improve the economic bottom line and environmental integrity of participating farms through the implementation of Farm Viability Plans. These farm plans, which are developed by teams comprised of farmers and other agricultural, economic and environmental consultants, suggest ways for farmers to increase their on-farm income through such methods as improved management practices, diversification, direct marketing, value-added initiatives and agritourism. In addition, Farm Viability Plans make recommendations concerning environmental and resource conservation concerns on participating farms

Zoning Protections - Communities concerned with the development potential of existing agricultural lands can adopt zoning bylaw amendments specifically designed to protect these open tracts of land. Perhaps the most straight forward approach is to implement true large lot zoning. Minimum lot sizes in these provisions generally range from 10 to 25 acres per unit and, as a result, are best suited to communities with vast areas of farmland. Densities should not go below these levels in order to achieve the desired end result of preserving wide open undeveloped areas. Other protections can include mandatory cluster or Open Space Residential Design (OSRD) provisions for existing farmland. These provisions ensure that the protection of open space will be maximized as lands transition from farmland to residential development.

Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) - This technique is better suited to Massachusetts communities where individual farms are considerably smaller than in other areas of the country where true large lot zoning has been used to preserve open space in agricultural areas.

TDR provides an excellent opportunity to blend down-zoning with incentives for increased density. In agricultural communities, undeveloped agricultural lands can be designated as "sending areas" where the amount of development that would ordinarily be allowed on the parcel is transferred to a pre-designated "receiving area". In other words, the development potential of one area is added on to the development potential of another.

Existing Village vs. Conventional Development vs.  Development with TDR
Existing Village vs. Conventional Development vs. Development with TDR

Characteristics that Support Agricultural Preservation

Communities that have success in preserving farmland and agricultural preservation will generally have the following characteristics:

  • Well Organized Parcel Information. Having access to a well organized Assessor's database that identifies preservation and development opportunities is a critical first step to planning for agricultural preservation. Communities that have implemented a GIS Assessor's database have a clear advantage when prioritizing lands for preservation. Other local initiatives, such as Open Space and Recreation Plans, can serve as an excellent source of information relative to Chapter 61A lands and other farmlands in a community.
  • Committed Core Citizens Group. Institutionalizing preservation efforts in the form of Agricultural Commissions, Agricultural Preservation Restrictions or Community Gardens often hinges on a reliable group of citizens with administrative skills and a solid understanding of the local tools and state-level programs that apply to these situations.
  • Open Lines of Communication. Regular outreach efforts are a required component of a successful Right-to-Farm initiative and local Commissions must develop a consistent forum for individuals to raise issues, resolve conflicts and plan for the future of agricultural lands.
  • Local Commitment in the General Population. Agricultural Preservation efforts often require community-wide support. It is therefore essential for communities involved in these efforts to continually reach beyond the primary stakeholders in the agricultural community and into the overall population to support local initiatives.


Over ninety Agricultural Commissions have been created in Massachusetts to help preserve agricultural lands and farming operations in their community. In these communities and many others, local officials have leveraged funding to help finance more than 500 APRs statewide, which span thousands of acres of active or retired farmland. Targeted production efforts have also successfully decreased local commitments to imported products. The work of local Commissions, in collaboration with state agencies, has helped to maintain a $6 billion  revenue stream for an industry that pays $77 million each year in wages.

These types of agricultural preservation measures directly or indirectly satisfy several of the Massachusetts Sustainable Development Principles including:

  • Plan Regionally: Preserving farmland and agricultural opportunities has obvious economic significance to the state as a whole and is consistent with long standing Massachusetts policies.
  • Concentrate Development and Mix Uses: Preservation techniques that mandate cluster development in agricultural areas concentrate development in a way that preserves land while expanding housing opportunities in a municipality.
  • Use Natural Resources Wisely: The preservation of agricultural lands conserves existing natural resources by maintaining recharge to groundwater and maintaining open space.
  • Protect Land and Ecosystems: Conservation restrictions that may be placed on existing agricultural lands can provide permanent protection for wildlife habitat and significant cultural or historic landscapes.
  • Increase Job and Business Opportunities: Efforts to preserve and enhance the viability of existing agricultural operations foster local economies and strengthen sustainable resource-based businesses.

Financial Considerations

Agricultural preservation can provide several financial benefits to municipalities and to the development community:

  • Limiting development in outlying agricultural areas will reduce municipal infrastructure and service costs that would result from large scale subdivision development.
  • If development rights are transferred as part of a preservation technique, private developers can realize significant financial gains through an increase in the development potential in "receiving areas" such as village centers or established residential neighborhoods.

Other financial considerations include:

  • the amount of money that may be needed by a community to purchase lands that are withdrawing from the Chapter 61A program.
  • the likelihood of success of any proposed APR will be increased if a municipality can provide a portion of the funding required to purchase the deed restriction.

Another direct economic benefit of agricultural preservation comes from maintaining a viable local agricultural economy. Producing more local agricultural products reduces dependence on foreign and out-of-state operations, reduces shipping expenses and oil consumption, and strengthens local economies. Locally grown products employ Massachusetts farmers and substantially reduce the costs and impacts of large scale interstate transport.