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Young Farmer and City of Salem in a Pickle

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2018 April Issue Newsletter

By Guy Steucek, Contributor

Back in the era of the Salem witch trials most of the residents were farmers and farming was a primary use of the landscape. Today, the only farm in Salem feels almost as if it’s on trial, struggling to gain acceptance as a commercial agricultural operation. Maitland Mountain Farm has been producing agricultural products for about a decade without issue. Now they are in a pickle, navigating the future of small farm viability in Salem as they encounter roadblocks in their need to build a packing house on the property to comply with the Food Safety Modernization Act and grow their business. This post and beam building with a rustic agricultural motif would enable them to wash, pack and cool the produce on site. 

While Salem’s farm ordinance recognizes farms over five acres in size, Maitland Mountain Farm would like to see that number reduced to two acres to match Massachusetts’s Right to Farm agricultural laws. The primary use of the Salem land is also contested. Maitland Mountain Farm asserts that the property is primarily used for agriculture though there is a home on the site. The farm sits on approximately two and a half acres. There are hoop houses and plots with cover crops sprouting. A rustic barn and agricultural tractor were also on site. Even old equipment and other scrap had a New England farm allure. 

The farm has been a primary participant in the Salem Farmers’ Market since the market’s inception. Moreover, Maitland Mountain Farm has supplied local restaurants with produce of a unique character. This is touted in local websites and publications, and even by town sponsored sources. As new higher-end restaurants are popping up in the city, Maitland Mountain Farm sees the demand for farms like theirs as ever increasing.

Jett's picklesOne of the farm’s best-known products is its pickles, produced in a commercial kitchen in Lynn. Mark Maitland sees part of their issue with public trepidation over the packing house as an assumption and misperception that it will be used for the pickles, which they plan to continue to produce in Lynn.  “Leafy produce and cut flowers are two of the main crops we raise, and both would benefit from refrigeration and proper packaging if we are to supply more in larger scale,” says Mark.

When asked to write on this problem, I immediately went to the computer and viewed the property using several web sources. Aerial views were not particularly helpful. When I read that Town officials were making decisions without visiting the site, I decided the least I could do was to walk the ground. In an instant on site, it was obvious to me that this is a farm.

Some can’t believe that two acres of agriculture can provide a family with a livable income and hence be a primary property use. There are numerous examples of very profitable few acre farms generating six figure incomes for the farmers. Just go to the NOFA/Mass Winter Conference. Conversely, there are any number of tens of thousands acre commodity farms unable to turn a profit.

The Salem ordinance requires that an agricultural parcel must be at least five acres. In contrast, the Commonwealth recognizes commercial agriculture taking place on two acres or more. Commonwealth Statue Part I, Title VII, Chapter 40A, Section 3 states: “No zoning ordinance or by-law shall regulate or restrict… , nor shall any such ordinance or by-law prohibit, unreasonably regulate, or require a special permit for the use of land for the primary purpose of commercial agriculture…” The proposed change would affect approximately 3-5 other properties in Salem, according to Mark Maitland.

Salem’s Ordinances, Licenses and Legal Affairs Committee has a large backlog of issues that receive little attention, thereby making it difficult to resolve requests. The default action is inaction.

Fortunately, farmer Andy Varela got the Maitland Mountain Farm zoning issue back on track and a public hearing took place last January. However, no changes were made to Salem’s zoning laws. The next step for them is to submit the building permit, most likely get denied, and go through the Zoning Board of Appeals, a costly process. The farm is now in the early stages of a relationship with the Conservation Law Foundation’s Legal Food Hub, hoping to receive legal assistance in navigating the path forward.

Maitland Mountain Farm has tremendous community support and a positive relationship with the City of Salem. The city is careful to protect its autonomy over zoning, though the farm does see long-term implications from limitations on their ability to grow their business. “The packaging house is necessary for the farm to grow,” says Mark. “The farm can continue, but opportunities are being missed. There are a variety of reasons we need the packaging house, but firstly and more importantly we need to be recognized by the city as a farm and determined primary use agriculture so that we can gain the protections and benefits afforded by law. The reason for the Farm By Right Laws was that as urban sprawl continued, the new neighbors to a farm would complain and bring suits against the farm and eventually put them out of business.”

The Maitlands are doing what they can to appease neighbors’ concerns about farm sights and smell, and they do enjoy significant community support. “Some neighbors view the farm as their own back yard,” says Mark. “This has been a real lesson in civics,” he continues. How their trial plays out will have an impact on their own viability and that of others as development and farming come into conflict as they struggle to coexist.

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