GREAT BARRINGTON — After 15 years of promoting native habitat conservation and education, the Project Native farm will be closing in August.
Former Great Barrington resident Reina Weber founded Project Native in 2001 through a grant from the local nonprofit Railroad Street Youth Project. In 2005, Project Native officially detached from the auspices of RSYP, and began working independently, coordinating its own programs and operations at 342 North Plain Road.
Recent years have been financially stressful for Project Native, prompting its stewards to search for a new caretaker of the 54-acre farmland property, barn and greenhouse structures.
"At Projects Native's inception in 2001, native and invasive plants were a term that few had heard of," said Weber. "Over the years this changed as native plants caught on, became trendy and therefore commercially available."
Trending, native plants saturated the market, Weber said.
"Large commercial nurseries could easily sell native plants at a fraction of the price that Project Native's small hand-grown organic nursery could," she said.
But, she added, Project Native used "landscaping projects using native plants" that "provided a much needed revenue stream and supported the organization for the last years that I was executive director."
Project Native board member Erik Bruun, said that Weber's departure in 2012 made it difficult for the nonprofit to continue to receive funding.
"After Reina left, we adjusted the focus away from the landscaping aspect, and more towards the educational aspect," Bruun explained. "It was harder to make it happen."
The nonprofit's board decided back in December to sell the farmland to local farmer and landscape designer, Bridghe McCracken, founder of Helia Land Design.
"The goal in selling the property to Bridghe was to hold onto the nursery," Bruun explained. "We felt that if it was properly managed, it could pay for itself."
Weber endorsed McCracken's qualifications to run the farm. McCracken has been Project Native's chief landscape designer since 2006.
"Although Project Native's educational mission and programs remained strong, keeping the 54-acre farm, historical buildings and nursery proved too expensive," Weber said. "This is why the perfect transition was for Bridghe and Helia to take over the operations of the farm and nursery as a for-profit business while Project Native continued as an educational nonprofit."
The Project Native board approved McCracken's application, contingent on approval by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. The Project Native farmland is a part of the department's Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program (APR).
The voluntary program offers to pay farmland owners the difference between the "fair market value" and the "agricultural value" of their farmland in exchange for a permanent deed restriction, which precludes any use of the property that will have a negative impact on its agricultural viability.
The two parties submitted their paperwork to the MDAR in February. While they awaited approval, McCracken entered into a lease agreement with Project Native to begin operations on the farm under her company, Helia Land Design.
In April, the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture intervened and stopped the sale, exercising its right of first refusal as evoked through the APR program.
APR statutes allow the state agricultural department to buy the development rights for the land's fair commercial market price from the landowner and ensure the land is farmed in perpetuity.
After exercising the right of refusal, the MDAR can take applications from farmers interested in purchasing the land for farming use. The department assigns its rights to the sale to one of the applicants — the winning bid can even be the initial buyer's — thereby directing at its discretion the land sale as it sees fit within the APR program.
In the case of Project Native, the department intervened in the sale in February, halted the transfer, and solicited applications from interested farmers. The department received three applications: one from McCracken, one from neighboring local farmer and Great Barrington Select Board Chair Sean Stanton, and one from an unidentified third party.
The MDAR notified the parties in late May that it had selected to approve Stanton's bid. Stanton stated his plans to graze his livestock on the land and to convert much of the habitat to pasture.
"We're a 100 percent grass-fed and organic beef and dairy operation," Stanton said. "Our plan in large part is to move most of the operation from my parents' farm and expand into a more efficient base of operations."
That spells doom for Project Native's mission of preserving native habitat and horticulture. The seed bank and wildlife preservation areas on the land will be utilized to their full agricultural potential under Stanton's farming plan, which means that they will be open for livestock grazing.
"The decision of the DAR to grant this farm to a farmer that will not continue the stewardship of the previous owners but will instead bring grazing animals that will negate 13 years of restoration," Weber said, "is an outrage and utter shame."
Stanton sees things differently.
"What's going to change, land use wise? Not much," Stanton told The Eagle. "There's already pasture there, the pastures have been in existence for hundreds of years. We're essentially taking it back to what it was by setting up grazing for our livestock."
The decision to not continue using the farmland as a horticultural preserve came as a shock to McCracken and the Project Native board. Massachusetts law defines agriculture as including the growing and harvesting of "floricultural and horticultural commodities." McCracken also believes her plan's continuity of land use fits the mission of the APR program.
Weber expressed her disappointment and disillusionment with the process.
"Project Native always worked with DAR to ensure its activities were supported under the agricultural preservation restriction," she said. "This sudden change of thinking and the decision to take the farm away is completely baffling and they will offer no explanation as to why."
"It leads me to seriously question the integrity of the department."
Project Native is pursuing its options in the limited time it has left before the deal closes, but without a major reversal of fortune in the next month the farmland will change hands in August.
Project Native History
2000: Reina Weber starts Project Native as a greenhouse through support of the Railroad Street Youth Project.
2001: Project Native sets up a greenhouse on the Root Orchards site on Park Street in Great Barrington.
2003: Project Native receives funding from a donor to relocate to the farm at its current location, 342 North Plain Road.
2005: Project Native becomes its own nonprofit entity, focusing on the cultivation of native plants and habitat, education, and using the farm as its main base of operations. It offers public programs and education workshops.
2012: Weber leaves the organization to work on sustainable water projects on the Yucatan Peninsula.
2015: Project Native decides to sell the farm and nursery and accepts native landscape designer, Bridghe McCracken's bid.
2016: The state Department of Agricultural Resources rejects the application under Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program guidelines. The department re-opens calls for land purchase applications from farmers, and awards the land to local farmer and Great Barrington Select Board Chairman Sean Stanton. He plans to cultivate the land into grazing pasture for his livestock. Project Native is now exploring options to try to preserve the land for native horticultural and seed preservation.