December 8, 2012

Belgrade farm family protects 142-year-old homestead as 'Forever Farm'

Agricultural easement will ensure Winterberry Farm, on Route 27, remains a farm

By Paul Koenig pkoenig@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

BELGRADE -- Winterberry Farm on Route 27, with pastures and vegetable fields that stretch back to Great Pond, has been around 1870.

click image to enlarge

Mary Perry, left, and her children Gil Whitehead, standing, Sage Whitehead, seated on lap, and Kenya Whitehead, pose beside the Forever Farm sign at their Winterberry Farm, on Thursday in Belgrade.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

click image to enlarge

Kenya Whitehead puts a row cover over back over greens growing in a hoop house at Winterberry Farm, as night falls on Thursday in Belgrade. The double layer of protection can keep them alive over the winter.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

But there's a new addition representing a change that will keep it a farm: a green and white sign that reads "Forever Farm."

An agricultural easement was placed on the property last week by Maine Farmland Trust and the Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance, protecting it from ever becoming anything else.

"It's an amazing feeling to know that I'm now an owner of a farm that will be here for future generations," said owner Mary Perry.

The trust and the conservation alliance, the local easement holder, donated money and time to create the easement, which restricts the farm from being subdivided or developed into something besides a farm. The alliance raised its portion of the easement cost with the help of community members.

Perry, 47, who bought the farm 12 years ago, has been learning to grow vegetables, raise poultry and livestock, and do whatever else it took to support herself and her three children. The farm was owned by the same family since it was established, but was dormant for 25 years before Perry bought it.

"I knew from the second I pulled into the driveway that this was where I needed to be," Perry said. "I don't know if I needed the farm or if the farm needed me more, but we truly did this together."

The farm has 50 members in its community supported agriculture program and is certified organic by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

Perry isn't the only full-time farmer in the family. Her children, Kenya, 17, Gil, 12, and Sage, 6, also work on the farm.

Kenya said she does a bit of everything, including training the apprentices who arrive through MOFGA each summer. Perry said Gil works his steers each morning, bringing wood from the forest and Sage helps out around the farm too, sometimes riding around on her pony, Lady Bug.

Winterberry Farm offers the community supported agriculture program, in which people pay for a steady supply of fresh veggies, during the summer and fall. Perry also sells vegetables, preserves, frozen chickens, pies and soup at the farm stand.

During the winter -- once there's snow on the ground -- they give horse-drawn sleigh rides and sell cut-your-own Christmas trees. They also grow kale, spinach and other hearty winter vegetables.

Perry has been working to protect the farm with an easement for more than six years. It was a situation made more complicated by the fact the partner she bought the farm with is a co-owner of the property even though they're no longer together.

Maine Farmland Trust had to buy the land from the ex-partner and put an easement on it with the alliance before selling it back to Perry at a reduced rate. The restrictions in the easement reduced the value by $25,000, which was picked up by the trust and the alliance.

The trust gave $15,000 towards the easement and the alliance gave around $10,000.

Maine Farmland Trust Executive Director John Piotti said such buy-protect-sell deals are less common, and the trust tries to avoid them. Farmers more often donate the easement without property changing hands.

A broader effort

The trust's Forever Farm program is a way for farms to communicate with the public about the easement, a way of branding, Piotti said.

Farms are given the Forever Farm sign for the property and can be listed on the program's website. The addition of Winterberry Farm brings the total of Forever Farms to 66, with six in Kennebec County, including Lakeside Orchard in Manchester.

(Continued on page 2)

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