Farmland Acquisition Program Divides R.I. Farmers

New Rhode Island farmers support a proposed state program to buy farmland, but some veteran farmers and politicians oppose the idea. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

New Rhode Island farmers support a proposed state program to buy farmland, but some veteran farmers and politicians oppose the idea. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — A program to buy local farmland is drawing both fear and hope among Rhode Island’s farm community, and has grabbed the attention of conservative activists, who call it a "government land grab."

Justin Dame of Dame Farm and Orchard in Johnston said the state proposal to buy farmland and sell it at a discount to newer farmers is another example of government picking winners and losers. The program, he said, will divide up-and-coming farmers, who typically run small farms and subscribe to the local food movement, from established, conventional farmers like himself.

“It’s a breeding ground of us versus them,” Dame said during a Sept. 7 workshop at University of Rhode Island Bay Campus. “I think it can hurt the industry more than help it.”

The conservative political group Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity claims the $3 million farmland acquisition program is part of a larger government agenda to promote eminent domain and advance the controversial RhodeMap RI state planning guide.

“RhodeMap RI,” Mike Stenhouse, CEO of the political group, said, “a lot of us see that in this."

Stenhouse released a statement after the workshop titled “Farmland Acquisition in Rhode Island: Stealing the American Dream?” where he described the program as “a government land-grab scheme” and a reminder of European-style feudalism.

In the essay, Stenhouse writes, incorrectly, that an overwhelming majority of the audience had serious doubts about the program. In fact, about half of the audience included newer farmers interested in the seeing the farmland program move forward. Stenhouse and several of the impassioned opponents left before several of the supporters of the program spoke.

Bill Stamp Jr. and his son Bill Stamp III of Stamp Farms in Exeter and Cranston left in frustration after making their statements. The elder said he has been fighting the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) for decades, and helped establish some of the state's existing farm protection programs during his 40 years with the Rhode Island Farm Bureau.

“I hate to see now that the state is going to takeover and do another project, which in time will fail,” he said. “All the things that don’t work are done by government.”

Other multi-generational farmers suggested that newer farmers may not appreciate the hard work and will want to sell their farmland. Other program opponents suggested that new farmers look for land in states where farmland is less expensive and taxes are lower.

Politicians also jumped on the anti-government theme. Rep. Sherry Roberts, R-Coventry, and Rep. Justin Price, R-Hopkinton, spoke against the program. South Kingstown Town Council member Liz Gledhill said she worried that the program would raise local property taxes.

“The purpose is to take property,” Roberts said, holding a copy of RhodeMap RI plan. “It’s very concerning.”

Several critics also suggested that the state and land trusts sell their protected land to create more farmland. Roberta Mulholland Browning of Browning Homestead Farm in South Kingstown said the proposed program would turn farmers into indentured servants.

Several new farmers said they have learned the hardships of farming while working for years on other farms, but they now want to be a part of their own operation and support the local food movement. Pat McNiff or Pat’s Pastured in East Greenwich said farmers want to stay in Rhode Island but leasing land creates uncertainty.

“This (program) is an opportunity for us to to be part of a community, raise families in the community, pay our taxes,” McNiff said.

Tess Brown-Lavoie, a farmer and organizer for the Young Farmer Network, an organization helping first-generation farmers succeed, said there is a void in state agriculture because many veteran farmers don't have successors.

“In Rhode Island there is such a vibrant local food economy. As the young generation of farmers, we will make it an economic benefit to the state if we are able to access land,” Brown-Lavoie said.

Some farmers, she said, are getting trained in Rhode Island then finding land out of state. “And that's a loss for us, and I hope this program works,” she said. “My community wants to work with the older generation of farmers to try to figure out how all this land, that we love so much (can) stay in agriculture."

Ken Payne, chair of Rhode Island Food Policy Council and the administrator of the Rhode Island Agricultural Partnership, said new farmers began looking for land in 2002, after decades of the state losing farmers and farmland.

“This (program) is one small piece of a very, very large puzzle and we have to work on the pieces of the puzzle,” Payne said.

Ken Ayars, chief of the state Division of Agriculture and moderator of the recent workshop, said the program, which was funded through a 2014 voter referendum to protect open space and farmland, is still being developed. He tried to dispel a connection between the program and RhodeMap RI and eminent domain.

“I hope that we can reach common ground," he said. "We have to recognize all facets of all age groups of all types of agriculture. And there’s traditional ways of looking at things and nontraditional ways of looking at things. We’re not meant to create division. We hope to create a way forward. Whether this is the correct mechanism that’s for us to decide collectively."

A third workshop is expected, followed by additional public hearings. See a draft of the program here.