"The APR program has endured for 40 years because it has been a true partnership between farmers, state and local government, and land protection advocates," said Representative Stephen Kulik

SOUTH DEERFIELD – Forty years ago, in the face of intense development pressure, Gov. Francis W. Sargent and the state Legislature created the Agricultural Preservation Restriction Act to stem the loss of farms and prime farmland.

Since then, the first-in-the-nation program has protected 906 farms on 73,163 acres.

Of that number there are 141 APR farms in Worcester County comprising 15,568 acres.

State and federal officials celebrated the APR program’s 40th anniversary Friday, touring farms in the Connecticut River Valley, surveying the broad expanse of protected acreage from the summit of Mount Sugarloaf State Reservation.

John Lebeaux, commissioner of the Massachusetts Dept. of Agricultural Resources, said for the current fiscal year the Legislature has committed $3.62 million for the voluntary program, which gives farmers an alternative to development when deciding their farm’s future.

The APR program pays farmers the difference between fair market value and agricultural value in exchange for a permanent deed restriction that rules out many non-agricultural uses.

Mr. Lebeaux said the tour of APR farms in the Connecticut River Valley was appropriate because it represents some of the most fertile and productive farmland in the state.

“When you consider the historical development pressure on farmers and the cost of acquiring additional acreage for farming, the APR program has been vital in keeping agriculture viable,” he said.

The commissioner added, “Only the best farmland with the best soil characteristics, as determined by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, is considered for enrollment in the APR program.”

Since 1996, state and federal agencies have worked together establishing criteria for the APR program. Mr. Lebeaux said that partnership has brought federal dollars to the program.

“When you bring money to the table, you get a say in how it’s being spent,” the commissioner said.

Mr. Lebeaux acknowledged a waiting list of farms interested in enrolling in the program.

He said the applications are reviewed by the Agricultural Land Preservation Committee.

“We nominate farms for enrollment and the committee reviews those nominations. If the committee accepts, we move forward with property appraisals. The committee then gets a final vote, and if a farm is approved it’s put in the queue for funding,” he said.

The commissioner said with title issues, ownership by multiple family members, and other variables, the enrollment process can take up to 2½ years.

State Sen. Anne M. Gobi, D-Spencer, Senate chairwoman of the Joint Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, said the state has been a leader, with many programs that have helped farmers and the environment.

“APR is a prime example of a program with many merits and I look forward to continuing to work with MDAR as we explore opportunities to make the program even more relevant to the changing needs of farmers,” she said.

A year ago the administration created a new grant program, Stewardship Assistance and Restoration, to help owners of APR farmland improve overall use of their land.

MDAR also supports APR farms through the APR Improvement Program, which offers financial and technical assistance to farm owners.

“Massachusetts has long prioritized protection of the commonwealth’s natural resources, and the serves as a great example of the state’s dedication to ensure the conservation of critical farmland is safeguarded for the future,” said Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton.

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, said, “Gov. Sargent had the foresight and vision 40 years ago to recognize that our family farms are the lifeblood of the Massachusetts agricultural system. The Agricultural Preservation Restriction program has preserved thousands of acres of Massachusetts farmland since its inception and has served as a national model for other states.”

“We must continue to support our farmers to provide fresh local products for our residents and beyond,” Mr. Rosenberg said.

State Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, cited the state’s APR program as a national model for preserving farmland, while also strengthening the economic viability of farming and food production.

“It has succeeded and endured for 40 years because it has been a true partnership between farmers, state and local government, and land protection advocates. Every citizen benefits from this long-term investment in our land and quality of life.”

State Rep. John Scibak, D-South Hadley, said, “Sometimes, from a high elevation, one can take a look and see all of the changes to a region over the course of time. From the vantage point of Mount Sugarloaf, you can really see how much things haven’t changed. So much of our beautiful Pioneer Valley has been protected and preserved for agriculture, and the APR program has been a key driver in that effort.”

By Bradford L. Miner, Correspondent