Written by Sheila Grant
SEBEC/DOVER-FOXCROFT – The future of farming in Maine depends on keeping land available, and affordable, for farmers. That’s the message of the Maine Farmland Trust, an agency created in 1999 to help preserve farmland. On Dec. 30, another 2,075 acres of farmland was set aside when Maine Farmland Trust closed on the sale of much of the Varnum Farm located in Sebec and Dover-Foxcroft. “This is the part of the farm on the north side of the [Piscataquis] river,” said Nina Young, a land project manager with Maine Farmland Trust. “The property goes from the Dover-Foxcroft town line to the Milo town line on River Road, and includes open fields along the river. It goes to the Stagecoach Road bridge, and some of the land is beyond that.” Young said this was an important land acquisition because “this is a very large parcel of land that has really good soils on easily accessible, large fields. There’s not much land left in central Maine that has this much acreage. “The other thing,” she continued, “is that the property has multiple conservation values. It has good fields, excellent commercial forests, wildlife habitat, and wetlands along the river that have great habitat value, as well. And another thing is that the land has always had recreational value because the Varnum family let people hunt, fish, trap and use snowmobile trails. We will continue that.” The abandoned railroad tracks north of River Road will be a dedicated snowmobile trail, Young said. “We’ll be putting in a non-motorized boat launch on the river right by the Stagecoach Road bridge for canoes and kayaks in partnership with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and we’re also getting Land for Maine’s Future dollars for the purchasing of development rights,” she said. “They paid the fee for conservation rights so that the land will always be available for agriculture and forestry. That money is matched with federal dollars from the USDA Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program. We were also awarded a Maine Natural Resources grant for wetland protection and habitat enhancement, so there are three funding sources that are promoting this, which is a pretty great thing. All three programs are pretty competitive.” Young said Maine Farmland Trust was interested in the Varnum Farm a number of years ago, but the family was not ready to sell. The passing of Richard Varnum in September 2010 led to the family considering a sale, but the Varnums wanted to see the land kept as farmland. “We probably started working on this in October 2010, which is pretty fast for a deal with complicated to close,” Young said. “They needed to close in 2011, so it was a very challenging year, but very exciting.” Maine Farmland Trust will not keep the land. Once all of the easements are in place for the boat launch, wetlands, snowmobile trails and other areas, the land will be sold to farmers. “It is our hope, and the board’s desire, to keep this as a single farm, but there will be a possibility of two farms of about 1,000 acres each,” Young said, noting that misinformation often leads the public to worry that land purchased by her agency is taken off the tax rolls. “That’s not true. Because the land is protected with easements and cannot be developed anymore, whoever the new owner is might get a lower tax rate, but the land will still be on the tax rolls.” Young said the Varnum family was “very supportive and enthusiastic of this project. Their farm has been in the family for a couple of generations,” she said. “They amassed the property over the years. It started out as a dairy farm. The woods were managed very well. There could have been clear-cutting very easily, but they did not do that. They have always wanted to see it remain active farming and forest land.” Maine Farmland Trust has about 6,580 acres of land in this region under easements that protect farm and forestry, including much of the Charles Fitzgerald property in Atkinson and Dover-Foxcroft, a 1,033 acre farm in Bradford, and a 570-acre farm in Charleston and Bradford. Usually, Young said, new landowners continue to grant any public recreation access that has been traditionally allowed on the properties, though each owner is free to decide that after purchase. For more information about Maine Farmland Trust, visit www.mainefarmlandtrust.org.