GROTON — Concerned that the growing pace of development in town will put the agricultural community on the back burner of public consciousness permanently, local farming and husbandry proponents have launched an effort to amend the town’s bylaws to include a right-to-farm measure they say would better protect their interests.
If approved by residents at town meeting, the amendment would establish an Agricultural Commission that would advise the town’s land use boards on issues dealing with agriculture and farming issues.
“It’s already a state statute,” said proponent Sally Smith. “What we’re trying to do now is get the town to adopt it. If approved, an Agricultural Commission would be kind of a watchdog group that would mediate disputes involving farming and husbandry and conduct fact-gathering and arbitration on issues that might arise between farmers and their neighbors.
“Also, it would assist other town boards on issues dealing with agriculture,” she said. “There’s a lot of information coming down from the state’s Department of Natural Resources that the commission would help disseminate to local farmers and the public.”
According to Smith, owner of the Common View Farm where she raises flowers for sale, there are about 30 farms of various types and sizes still in operation in Groton. But in contrast to the popular view of large farms with diversified activities, most farms in town have become what Smith has coined “mono-cultural,” concentrating on a single crop or brand of livestock.
“It’s very surprising at how many people are doing agricultural-related things in town from keeping beehives to growing blueberries to raising sheep and horses,” said George Moore, a horse farmer and member of Smith’s ad-hoc committee formed to explore the advantages of adopting a right-to-farm bylaw.
“We just want to communicate what it is we do as farmers,” said Smith. “It’s really a matter of when people move into a farming community, they often don’t really know what they’re getting into. We want to make sure that those people are educated as to what living in a farming community is like. The other thing we want is to have a voice with town boards and committees. If there’s any kind of issue that comes up that’s related to farming, it might be better handled by an Agricultural Commission.”
With a large but fluctuating membership, the ad-hoc committee has proven there is strong support in town among local farmers for the proposed bylaw. Besides Smith and Moore, other farmers who have attended the meetings of the committee include Roy and Nancy McGregor of Maple Shade Farm, Rick Muehlke of the Muehlke Family Tree Farm, Carl Flowers of the Silveus Plantation and family farm owner Ramona Tolles.
If established, an Agricultural Commission would have no regulatory authority, but it would act as an advocate for the town’s farming community.
To that end, Moore has been visiting various town boards and committees informing members of what the initiative is about. So far, he has met only with support for the proposed measure.
“We have not had one negative comment so far,” said Moore. “Everybody I’ve talked to has been extremely supportive of the idea. So far, everybody has been very, very encouraging.”
That said, with the town fast becoming a bedroom community and attracting many new residents who aren’t used to life in the country, friction between homeowners and farmers is bound to become a problem.
“Encroaching development is one of the issues of concern to local farmers,” said Smith. “Also, there are many people buying homes in Groton who might not be completely informed that the property owner behind them is a farmer. Sometimes they only find out after they move in and become aware of barnyard noises and odors.”
That is when a group such as an Agricultural Commission can step in.
“Mostly what the commission will be doing is addressing misunderstandings that homeowners might have about farming practices and keeping town boards informed on what impact their decisions could have on local farmers,” said Smith.
Although such misunderstandings so far have been few, the potential for them is very real.
“I have not had any issues at all with the town, but it would be nice if we could do a little more for agriculture and farmers,” said Moore.
“We want people to be aware that Groton was founded as an agricultural town, and we see this effort as kind of perpetuating that legacy,” said Smith.
In the coming weeks, committee members will finish visiting the town boards and committees with visits to the Conservation Commission and Board of Selectmen. After that, members will work on finalizing a draft of the proposed right-to-farm article for inclusion on the warrant for the fall special town meeting.
“We just hope that residents in town will be supportive of our proposal and understand that we only want to protect farming and farming practices in Groton,” said Smith.