Farming is a growing industry in Rhode Island, with many new farmers starting small businesses. But when they don’t come from farming families, finding land can be a challenge, especially in a state with the most expensive farmland in the country. To help new farmers purchase land, state officials have set up a new land access program as part of a longstanding effort to acquire and preserve green space. Now that program has come under attack by a conservative movement.
The Department of Environmental Management is still hashing out the details of their new land access program, funded by $3 million from the Clean Water, Open Space and Healthy Communities bond that voters overwhelmingly approved in 2014.
It's a new offering under the department's land acquisition program, which has been around for more than 30 years, protecting more than 100 farms from development to date.
The gist of the new program is this: buy farmland at fair market value, and then resell it to other farmers at a more affordable price to keep farmland from being developed.
This may not sound controversial. But farmers like Justin Dame have a problem with it. His family has been farming for six generations in Johnston.
Dame doesn’t trust the government, partly because back in the late 1960s, his grandfather lost farmland to the state through eminent domain. He doesn’t think DEM has any business subsidizing the cost of land.
“If you have a good advantage, a good lease or your family handed down land generation from generation, that gives you the hand up over other people,” said Dame. “It’s what industry is. I mean, you start taking away that and start making everything fair and equal, and then the state has to be involved in everything.”
Dame is convinced the state’s program will favor small farmers who grow organic food.
“There’s a big demand for this, I mean, a lot of young people coming out of colleges and are feeling the way that this is a healthier better way to eat,” said Dame. “And by all means, meet the demand, but don’t run to the state and ask for help. You know what I mean?”
Dame’s father Jay Dame worries the state, with help from the federal government, will carve up farmland into smaller plots to create low-income housing, although state officials flatly deny this is the case.
“Basically now they’re calling the shots on the local planning boards as to what our communities are going to look like,” said Dame.
The Dames are not alone in their concerns about the program. Other farmers and conservative groups are calling it a communist redistribution of land.
“We are not under threat of communism,” said Andy Radin, an agriculture extension specialist at the University of Rhode Island. “We are a highly capitalist society.”
Radin is following the many theories floating around about this project. He works with lots of farmers and agrees with the program’s goal to support farmers and protect farmland. Still, he thinks the rules need work.
“I see a lot of vagueness,” said Radin. “I see things that are not spelled out with clarity. And if you want to get people up in arms, the best way to do it is to be vague."
State officials say they left the language vague because they’re still writing the rules, and they wanted to get public feedback. But Radin thinks that strategy has backfired. He sees conservative groups taking advantage of the situation in a charged political season.
“We are not taking advantage of anything; we are connecting the dots,” said Mike Stenhouse, the executive director of the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, a conservative group that’s one of the leading voices against this project.
“To think that somehow this will become a—remain a purely voluntary program is very naive,” he said.
Stenhouse thinks this program will eventually turn into eminent domain. He rejects the argument that DEM doesn’t have the powers of eminent domain to acquire land, even though other state agencies do. Stenhouse said it doesn’t matter that DEM has no track record of acquiring land by force.
“I’m not going to talk to a track record because we’re trying to stop the track record from happening in the state in an abusive way,” said Stenhouse.
Stenhouse sees a pattern of big government forcing an agenda of sustainability and egalitarianism on local communities. He thinks this program got started at the United Nations and has trickled down to the federal government, and state and local initiatives. To Stenhouse, this is socialism creeping into the free market.
“This is just not the proper role of government,” said Stenhouse. “We do not trust our politicians to be pure. We know there’s corruption. We know that there are insiders who are being planned to benefit from this.”
Far from it, said Ken Ayars, the chief of DEM’s agriculture division. Ayars maintains the program is open to all farmers with a strong business plan, “whether it’s organic or conventional, whether it’s turf or food is more or less irrelevant to the selection process."
Ayars said the program will help farmers with less than 10 years of experience and farm income of less than $350,000 a year.
“If you look at the federal statistics, that’s more than 95 percent of farmers in the state,” said Ayars. “And our thought was, that’s the income range most likely to need this type of assistance.”
Development pressures and demand for farmland are driving up land values. In Rhode Island, one acre is worth an average of $13,800 – the highest in the country.
At a workshop to review the new program's draft rules, Paul Brule, the former director of the Rhode Island Farm Service Agency, made the case for helping new farmers.
“A lot of these young farmers today are making some good money,” said Brule. “And they can buy a farm, but not at the current price. There is no way they can make it! But they are making a decent living on small acreages and all rental.”
Finding land to rent is also a challenge. Tess Brown-Lavoie started farming an abandoned lot in Providence when she co-founded Sidewalk Ends Farm. Now she and her partners lease more farmland across the border in Seekonk, Massachusetts.
Brown-Lavoie works with Land For Good, a regional nonprofit that connects retiring farmers with newer farmers looking for land.
“Land is such a high cost,” said Brown-Lavoie. “It’s a barrier to entry for all different types of farmers. And the idea that some people would be barred from the profession because they don’t have the means to purchase land, that’s so unfortunate.”
Brown-Lavoie praises DEM for turning its attention to land access. Other organizations, such as the Southside Community Land Trust, are also pleased the agency is trying to help newer farmers find land to rent or own.
DEM officials say they will clarify the rules of the state’s new land acquisition program.
But opposition to the program is deeply rooted in mistrust of the government and values that simply don’t line up with what state officials say they are trying to achieve, such as more access to affordable land and more locally-grown food. Opponents hope a lawmaker will take up their fight in the next legislative session.
Note: This post has been updated.