GROTON -- With the family farm fast becoming a thing of the past in Massachusetts, a local grower refuses to give up the ghost, fighting to preserve the state's agricultural heritage by diversifying production and making it easier to pass along farms intact to the next generation.
At Silveus Plantation, owner Carl Flowers admits that he is getting on in years and has plans in place to retire. What worries him, however, is the fate of his 137-acre farm where he makes a living raising chickens and sheep, keeping honey bees, and growing Christmas trees.
Not wishing to see his farm disappear into the wilds of suburban development, Flowers said he knows someone who might be interested in taking it on after him if a deal could be swung.
Enter Dunstable resident Adam Frye, a graduate of the Massachusetts university system who has been cooperating with Flowers developing new agricultural techniques at Silveus Plantation designed to maximize the use of acreage by introducing non-competitive plants and animals.
"Adam and I met two years ago and did a little experiment last year with three sheep," said Flowers. "We let them graze among the Christmas trees looking to see how they would keep the grass down and if they would do any harm to the trees. The results were very encouraging."
Flowers has owned and operated Silveus Plantation since 1980. Located in Groton and accessed by way of Kemp Street, the farm is primarily given over to growing Christmas
"Adam wants to farm but like other young farmers, he has student loans to pay so does not have the money to buy a farm," said Flowers of his young partner. "Meanwhile, I'm getting old and if I can get my act together, I'd like to sell him the farm. Right now, I have money to move into a gated community when I retire so I'm just looking at this as another way that people can help each other out. The older generation helping the younger generation and vice versa."
That was one of the issues discussed with members of the Middlesex Conservation District, which met with Flowers on his farm last week.
"We had a district board meeting that day and the board likes to visit local farms that have received some technical assistance for conservation work," said MCD member Elizabeth McGuire. "For Mr. Flowers, we provided some soil maps and are working on a conservation plan for his farm. He's trying to protect his farm and make it a viable business that he can pass on. He's working very hard at it."
For his part, Flowers was happy to see that the MCD was taking an interest in what was happening on his farm, the most amazing part of which is that all of his husbandry activities, including the growing of Christmas trees, takes place on less than 1 acre of his property.
"We do it all on the same piece of land and we're still looking for ways to expand it," said Flowers of the maximization experiment. "Instead of looking at only one crop for a parcel of land, we do more than one that at the same time can all be friendly with each other.
"That's why the group wanted to come here. I feel very positive about them coming here. There were a lot of farm issues discussed, including the transfer of farm ownership and inheritance-tax issues. There are a lot of farm-related things not being addressed by the state and they came to see if there were ways that they could be helpful in improving things."
But mostly, Flowers is concerned about keeping agriculture alive in the state and if less property is going to be available for farming in the future, then farmers will need to be smarter about making the most of what arable land remained.
That is where "sustained agriculture" comes in.
"Sustained agriculture is defined as something where a living can be made while at the same time creating enough produce that people need for eating," explained Flowers. "I've attended some workshops where I've been told that by the end of this century, the United States is going to be importing 100 percent of its food. Already, Massachusetts imports more than 90 percent of what it uses. We're ahead of the nation in the importing of foods! The people who visited the farm last week were just interested in seeing what was happening here. They were looking to decrease the percentage of food that the state imports by finding ways to make sure Massachusetts keeps the farms it has that are still farming."
"The state would like to promote sustained agriculture in order to protect the land and the soil so it's not lost or destroyed because of the use of too much chemicals or bad agricultural practices," said McGuire of the state's interest in the movement. "They'd also like to see less importation of food and more of it grown locally.
"But the major issue making it difficult to farm in Massachusetts at all is that the little agricultural land we have left is being built upon faster than we can save it," said McGuire. "That's our biggest concern. Inheritance taxes and keeping farms intact are others. The state has several programs aimed at helping farmers protect their land but it takes a lot of planning. The programs are working, but a lot of farms still end up in development.
"In the end, that's why we're here visiting with Mr. Flowers," said McGuire. "By grazing some sheep and chickens among young Christmas trees, he's practicing what is called silviculture grazing; something the district is interested in."
As for Flowers, he is not acting like someone who believes farming is on the verge of extinction. Next year, he plans on introducing cattle to Silveus Plantation to keep company with the non-competitive sheep, chickens and bees.