Coalition pushes farm plan

By Brock Parker
Globe Correspondent / October 15, 2009

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Lexington resident Meg Muckenhoupt says there are a number of consequences - from obesity to E. coli contamination - when people stop paying attention to where their food comes from or how it is grown.

So Muckenhoupt is helping to spearhead an effort to establish a community farm in Lexington that would teach children and adults about how farms work, and the benefits of buying foods that aren’t grown thousands of miles away.

“Frankly, local stuff tastes better than if you get a 20-day-old head of lettuce from out in California,’’ Muckenhoupt said.

She has teamed up with the grass-roots Lexington Community Farm Coalition, which is gathering signatures for a petition calling for the town to establish a local operation at the Busa Farm property on Lowell Street.

The coalition would like Lexington to join the ranks of area municipalities with community farms on public land, such as Lincoln, Natick, Newton, and Waltham. Plans are also underway in Medway and Needham.

In May, Lexington’s Town Meeting authorized the purchase of the 8-acre Busa Farm property for about $4.1 million. Town Manager Carl Valente said the town is hoping to close on the purchase and sale agreement this fall.

How the farmland would be used has not been decided, but because Community Preservation Act funds are being used for the purchase, Valente said, the property must be used for recreation, open space, historic preservation, or affordable housing.

Two of the town’s biggest needs are recreation and affordable housing, Valente said, so town officials presented sketches to Town Meeting voters showing the Busa property could be used by local youth sports teams.

Beth Gavrin, president of the Lexington United Soccer Club, said additional playing fields could help alleviate some of the pressure on the town’s recreational facilities during the spring, when youngsters are playing soccer, lacrosse, and baseball.

“We could certainly use the space,’’ Gavrin said. She said her youth league and the town discussed the possibility of using Busa Farm as a soccer field, but she knows there are other ideas being discussed.

Suzanne Pan, a member of the Lexington Community Farm Coalition, said the town has enough soccer fields, and she would rather see a farm that was run for the community by the community.

Pan said the coalition has gathered about 1,000 signatures for its petition supporting a community farm on the site. She said vegetables and some fruit could be grown there, and other ideas such as beekeeping are also being contemplated.

Coalition member Janet Kern said she believes that a community farm would qualify as an open space or historical preservation use under the Community Preservation Act, which has strict limits on how the proceeds from the program’s property-tax surcharge and state matching funds can be spent.

“Farming is a part of Lexington’s legacy,’’ Kern said. “It was a bunch of farmers out there on the Lexington Green’’ at the start of the Revolutionary War, she said, “and we’ve lost that over the generations.’’

Kern said the farm could be run by a nonprofit group that would lease the land from the town and hire a farmer to tend the crops. Revenue would be generated by selling “shares’’ of the farm’s harvest to local residents under the community-supported agriculture model.

The community farm also would provide a way to educate children and adults about food sources, and how crops are grown, Kern said.

“The dream would be that it’s a community meeting place where everyone in Lexington realizes they can learn about food,’’ she said.

Educational efforts are a top priority at a number of the region’s community farms, including Waltham’s facility, which is run by a nonprofit organization that leases land from the University of Massachusetts and the neighboring Lyman Estate, said Claire Kozower, its executive director.

The Waltham Fields Community Farm partners with local schools and the city’s Recreation Department to offer programs that teach children about farming and where their food comes from, she said.

The farm grows a wide variety of produce, Kozower said, from eggplants to herbs and winter squash to radishes, and sells portions of its crop to about 350 shareholders. “At this time of year it’s pretty bountiful.’’

According to the nonprofit Northeast Organic Farming Association’s Massachusetts chapter, Lexington, Medway, and Needham are among several communities in the eastern part of the state where new community farms are being considered.

Ben Grosscup, the community farms organizer for the nonprofit trade association, said the typical structure is one in which a nonprofit group leases public land and operates the facility for the municipality.

“It allows town governments not to have to get involved with the minutia of running a farm,’’ Grosscup said.

While the Lexington Community Farm Coalition is a grass-roots group, Kern said, she believes the coalition has the resources to find the correct people to run the farm.

The chairman of Lexington’s Board of Selectmen, Norman Cohen, said that when the town completes the purchase of Busa Farm, it will set up a committee to decide how the property would be used.

Whether the town would support a community farm over recreational uses has yet to be seen, Cohen said, and he’s not ready to say what he would prefer.

“I want the committee to study it,’’ Cohen said.

Until then, Pan said, the Lexington Community Farm Coalition will continue lobbying residents and selectmen to opt for a community farm.

“It’s such an easy sell,’’ Pan said.

“People think: ‘Why wouldn’t we do that?’ ’’