Saving Camden farmland for farming
Camden — When Rokes farm in Camden was poised to hit the real estate market in February 2011, a group of interested parties almost immediately materialized. Ideas for the idyllic property — which spans 40 acres and was once an egg farm — ranged dramatically. Nearby, an abutting parcel of historic farmland — owned by the Spear family — was more aggressively on the market. Some considered the heritage of the place and deduced that the farm could be in danger. They took action.
Now, with both properties in hand, Maine Farmland Trust must raise $303,000 to place agricultural easements on the properties before committing them to the ownership of private farmers for the next generation, thus the Saving Camden Farmland for Farming campaign is underway. Combined, the properties represent 54 acres of prime Camden farmland.
As Maine Farmland Trust Executive Director John Piotti explained that MFT had "no intention" of purchasing either the Rokes or Spear property, now, he said, the organization — aided by an as-needed partnership with Maine Coast Heritage Trust, who will continue to monitor the easement as a third-party — owns both parcels.
"What we do is we don't say no," Piotti explained.
A brief history of Rokes Farm
Rokes Farm is a Camden landmark of sorts. It is located on outer Mechanic Street where Horace Rokes bought a 40-plus-acre lot in the late 1940s. He became a highly-productive chicken farmer, with thousands of hens at one point. The big, red barns and "buck-a-stem gladiolas" for sale each summer conjure memories of Camden that transcend generations. The property came to market after Rokes passed away in March 2009. Though the barns are visible from the road, it's that proverbial "back 40" (or 35 as the case may be) that really drives home the point. Behind those big red barns, vegetable and gladiola gardens border a sloping expanse of fields that extend straight across toward Rockport.
Lyle Secotte, 75, of Lincolnville recalls decades spent working for Horace Rokes on the farm in various capacities. He began his tenure there in 1966. Secotte recalls an effort to extend a hay field which involved removing 26 trees — ash, oak and maple mostly — and re-seeding it with clover.
"We made it into a beautiful hay field," he recalled. Secotte said he and Rokes hayed the fields for years, before eventually turning the task over to Tony Bok. The fields are now hayed by Aldermere Farm, which also is managed by MCHT. Best known as an egg farm, Rokes kept "at least 30,000" hens in all three barns, and had about 100 sheep for a time after his children took an interest in them, Secotte said.
Secotte noted the elder Rokes was a "great gardener" taking special pride in his gladiolas. He grew thousands each year, Secotte said.
"Horace was a land lover and he put a lot of work into those fields," Secotte noted.
Secotte said he is pleased with the preservation of Rokes as a working farm.
"I think it's wonderful," he said. "[Horace] had mentioned it several times."
Secotte said after Rokes passed away, he knew the property was in the trustworthy hands of son Tom Rokes, who "grew up around the farm and did a terrific job."
A decision to sell, and conserve
Tom Rokes said after his father's death he explored placing conservation easements on the farm. Now in his 60s, having worked at Bath Iron Works for nearly 40 years, Tom Rokes said running the farm "was not something I wanted to do with the rest of my life."
He said he and his wife Monica initially listed the property for sale and "immediately" began receiving calls from land trusts.
"I was more than happy to sell it them," he said. "I really didn't want to see it developed."
Tom Rokes said his father had received offers on the place before, even talking about selling it at one point as his health began to decline. Secotte recalled similar conversations with the elder Rokes one evening.
"We did a lot of talking, and he left the farm to his boy," Secotte said. "When the [land trust] offer came along they were glad to have it."
According to Camden Conservation Commission President Doug Johnson, Rokes had been identified in a 2006 Camden Conservation Commission Natural Land Survey submitted to Camden residents as one of Camden's most notable pieces of land.
"Rokes farm came up very high on the list," said Johnson, adding a map now located in Camden Town Office was created based on the results of that survey.
Johnson lauded the purchase of the land and reintroduction to farming. He credited MFT and MCHT for taking action, and cited the "various possibilities" for the property's next incarnation.
"The people in the neighborhood are so pleased, they were so afraid that it was going to be developed," said Secotte. He said the additional protection of the Spear property is "wonderful" as well.
The value of the Rokes farmland — meaning the portion of the land that is viable as usable agricultural land — is the portion subject to an easement, said Piotti. Maine Coast Heritage Trust acted as the sponsor for the easement, which requires a third-party holder. The two organizations have a history of partnerships, most notably in 2008 when Erickson Fields Preserve in Rockport was protected. Funding applications were divided between state and federal programs; the federal money came through, but state funds did not.
Piotti said there has not been an issue with funding requests from Land for Maine's Future in the past, and had difficultly recalling an example of a similar situation, noting his organization has six to eight farmland projects in the works statewide at any given time. He acknowledged that Rokes seemed like an ideal candidate for the fledgling "Buy, protect, sell" program that was adopted by MFT three years ago.
"A well-structured easement can have a lot of flexibility," Piotti explained. He said MFT works with buyers to craft creative ways to protect farmland while making it accessible and attractive for new owners. Good farmland, in areas like Camden, sometimes translates to equally good development land, Piotti noted.
He said MFT rarely buys land in foreclosure auction situations because they do not want to bid against a farmer trying to acquire land. He recalled one situation they did buy a parcel at auction, but they were bidding against a developer.
Costs of conservation
Piotti said the land trusts paid "full market value" for the Rokes property —$700,000 according to the Vision Appraisal assessor's database. In turn, MFT re-listed the property with their newly-formed subsidiary, Maine Farmland Reality for $712,500, according to the Maine Farmland Realty website. The purchase price does not reflect the the implementation of the intended easements, which will lower the buyers' price by approximately $187,500, according to the website.
Piotti said MFT operates differently from many other land trusts. Ultimately all the land they purchase and protect has a purpose: it will remain in productive farming, and be sold farmer. He noted Rokes is a unique property that generated a lot of interested applicants, which is not always the case with the properties MFT strives to protect, many of which are in more rural parts of the state.
"Every property we deal with will end up in the hands of a private owner," Piotti said.
He said MFT pays taxes on all the properties they own while they own them — they don't buy property and hold it, which can create the impression of diminishing the tax base long term. The idea is to purchase the land and resell it with easements as part of the deal. He said MFT sometimes conducts simultaneous closings with the purchase and sale of property. He said MFT determines value of the useable farmland through a complicated series of appraisals and surveys. And once MFT owns the land, money doesn't talk, a fair price is determined and then the focus turns to finding a buyer whose interests reflect the agricultural value of the land and stewardship of the unique property, not the money, he said.
"We don't want farmers to think we're driving up the price of farmland," he explained. "We're here in support."
New owners found
Rokes went under contract to Marina Sideris and Cooper Funk in September. The 30-something couple was selected from "three or four" applications submitted to MFT, said Piotti. The couple has yet to make their plans for the property public, but Funk operates Dinner Bell Farm in California, and in a September interview, Sideris said she envisions the Rokes property will reflect the same "ethos." Piotti said farmers are selected based on number of factors including farming experience and vision.
"We really want people who will succeed at farming, not just owning, that's the gravy, we also want it to be farmed," he explained. "It's really about making good projects."
Spear Farm purchase
The Spear property was an unexpected purchase, said Piotti. The family needed to sell and in September, MFT bought the former sheep farm which boasts 23 acres of farm fields in addition to mixed woodland. The visible fields will be the subject of the easement and the Spear family "saw the value" of protecting their family farmland, Piotti said.
The entirety of the necessary money has not yet been raised to purchase the easements on the duo of Camden properties, Piotti said. A fundraising campaign for $303,00 — $143,000 toward the Rokes property and $160,000 toward the Spear land, reflecting easements and costs — is presently underway. Piotti said MFT has had an astonishing number of donations thus far, but likened the fundraising to a "flat-pyramid" with many small donations. To Piotti, that fact speaks to the significance of these projects to individual donors.
"We've had great, broad support," he said, adding the campaign has raised about $40,000 from more than 100 donors so far.
"People give $100 or $200 because they believe in what we're doing," he said.
Piotti said that MFT has been hearing parallel stories from farmers, many are farming leased land, and that land belongs to families often multi-generational and with many voices in the resounding choir of what to do with the family farm.
"We have two audiences," he said. "Dairy farmers trying to buy land that they have been leasing and young farmers competing with development pricing," he said. Many of the projects MFT investigates are brought to the attention of the organization by farmers, said Piotti.
"Farmers come to us, they say 'I'm worried about this,'" he said.
He noted that many of these farmers have been utilizing leased land based on a "handshake deal 20 years ago." A lot of those arrangements, he said, center around agreements made with dairy farmers who retired in the 1980s, now many of those land owners are expiring, and those handshake deals are, too.
Looking to the future
Tom Rokes said he's happy with the future projections for his father's farm.
"I'll keep an eye on it, I always will, it's been part of the family for so long," he noted. He said the plans he's heard related to the new owners include small scale farming and gardening.
"I'm really happy," he said.
MFT offers a number of ways to keep farmland protected and productive. agricultural easements — which prevent subdivision but allow for flexibility. FarmLink, which connects farmers with available land; Farm Vitality, a program that's designed to help existing farmers tap into new markets and increase their bottom line; and the newer Buy/Protect/Sell program. They have 4,000 household members, said Piotti.
At any given time, more than 200 farmers are searching for farmland in Maine, Piotti noted. He said a 13-member board, comprised mostly of "mud-on-the-boots" farmers from across Maine provide a "sanity-check" when the organization undertakes a projects. Many board members have been there since the inception of MFT in 1999, said Piotti, and the organization has protected more than 17,000 acres of farmland statewide since.
Cate Cronin of MFT said it would be "ideal" to reach the $303,000 fundraising goal by December, she noted that there is some "urgency" with the pending closing on Rokes slated for December. A farm tour is planned for Sunday, Oct. 21, at 8:30 a.m. at Rokes and Piotti will give a talk at Vose Library in Union Tuesday, Oct. 23, at 6:30 p.m. about the future of farming in Maine and important community projects including Saving Camden Farmland for Farming.
Those wishing to make contributions to the Saving Camden Farmland for Farming effort can make contributions to Saving Camden Farmland c/o Maine Farmland Trust, 97 Main St. Belfast, ME 04915. For additional information, contact Cate Cronin of MFT at 542-2665 or Ciona Ulbrich at MCHT by calling 244-5100.
Courier Publications reporter Jenna Lookner can be reached at 236-8511 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.