Chimney Hill readies for annual meeting

  • Farmer Michelle “Shelley” Knapp is the third generation of Knapps to manage the Chimney Hill Farm in Petersham.  Submitted photo

  • A fall view of the Chimney Hill Farm in Petersham. Michelle Knapp 

Published: 10/17/2018 12:09:03 AM
Modified: 10/17/2018 12:09:10 AM

PETERSHAM — An art teacher, a corrections officer, a realtor, and an engine mechanic all have one thing in common. While they have different occupations — and probably different political views — they recently joined together with dozens of other landowners to permanently protect their land from development in one of the most significant landscape-scale conservation projects in state history.

The public is invited to join a celebration of the initiative on Saturday, Oct. 20 at the recently conserved Chimney Hill Farm, located at 41 Hall Road. The event will feature tours of the sustainably managed woodlands and farm, a barbecue, activities for children including visiting the farm animals, and community awards. For more information about the Annual Meeting and to register, go to mountgrace.org or call Carol at 978-248-2055 x 17.

The land conservation initiative celebrated at Chimney Hill Farm involved a team of conservation organizations and agencies facilitated by Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, and includes two separate but overlapping projects. The “Quabbin Reservoir to Wachusett Mountain” initiative used federal Forest Legacy funds and the “Quabbin Heritage Landscape Project” accessed the Massachusetts Landscape Partnership program. Most of the acres were permanently protected using conservation restrictions or “CRs,” which typically allow land uses such as sustainable forestry, farming, and outdoor recreation to continue, while keeping the land privately-owned and on property tax rolls.

The project spans the seven towns of Athol, Phillipston, Petersham, Barre, Hubbardston, Westminster, and Princeton, and has involved 34 properties totaling 4,008 acres in. Protection of five more areas is expected later this fall and will bring the total to more than 4,100 acres conserved.

A key aspect of the project involved working with willing landowners to conserve those patches of land that would create new connections between previous protected lands. The result is a vast, interconnected 130,000-acre “quilt of conservation” made up of different but adjacent protected land “patches” that range from state parks and wildlife management areas to working farms and privately-owned woodlands, a remarkable result for one of the most densely populated states in the country.

“This project protects the rural heritage of the region, beauty and quiet of the North Quabbin landscape,” said Leigh Youngblood, Executive Director of Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust.  Community benefits include outdoor recreational opportunities like hiking and hunting, secured working forests for local wood products, beautiful scenic views, wildlife sanctuaries for Moose, Bobcat, and threatened bird species, and a protected land base for Chimney Hill Farm whose products are featured at some of the best restaurants in the area.

Family History

The history of two families is deeply intertwined at this unique hilltop farm. Tucked away in a remote corner of Petersham, Chimney Hill Farm has been owned and enjoyed by many generations of the Hall family, while the farm operation itself has been managed by three generations of Knapps. One of the projects by current farmer Michelle “Shelley” Knapp is reclaiming pasture with the help of Devon cattle, a docile, yet hardy breed that can handle New England weather. At the farm, the cattle graze alongside breeds of heritage hogs, sheep, goats, free-range chickens and ducks, and colony-raised rabbits. The Farm’s bounty can be sampled at destination restaurants including Deadhorse Hill, Armsby Abbey, and Birchtree Bread Company. Why do restaurants love Chimney Hill Farm? Shelley points to the decision to raise animals as naturally as possible. “We have breeds that reclaim pasture land, control weeds, and improve the soil without the use of pesticides. And they have space to roam.”

Sarah Wells, Land Protection Director at Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, stressed that this initiative succeeded only because so many different land conservation organizations and agencies chose to work together. “We have 39 landowners, eight towns, five conservation organizations, and four state and federal agencies pulling this effort together. It was truly a team effort.”

The Feldmans

For landowner Susie Feldman, who along with her husband Ben placed a conservation restriction on 296 acres of land that straddles the three towns of Athol, Phillipston, and Petersham, protecting the land was also a way to give back to the community. “The land we have, we live on. We play on it, we work on it, we get wood on it. My overwhelming philosophy is that you don’t guard something by putting a fence around it. You guard something by opening it and sharing it and letting others know what’s valuable about it. Those are my driving forces. I have a very emotional connection with the woods, it certainly a soothing and compelling presence in my life. I would like to have the land available for others who don’t have this so that this is available for them to treasure.”

Conservator of the Year

Jim French with the Department of Conservation and Recreation Division of Water Supply Protection worked with many of the landowners in the initiatives. “Every one of the landowners in the project had unique circumstances that led them to want to protect their land. Some did it because they hoped to keep their third generation farm from becoming a subdivision. Others needed to access the financial or tax incentives that can come from conserving land. But at some level, everyone participated because they loved their land. And thanks to these landowners, all 2.4 million users of the Quabbin as the source for their drinking water will benefit.” French will receive Mount Grace’s “The Conservator of the Year” award at the October 20 celebration to honor his lifelong work protecting land around the Quabbin and Wachusett Reservoirs, including his family farm in Sterling.

Community Steward Award

‘Molly Superchi, former Principal at Royalston Community School and current Director of Elementary Curriculum and Instruction for the Athol-Royalston Regional School District, will receive Mount Grace’s “Community Steward Award” to celebrate her support of programs that bring students outdoors to learn about wildlife, the natural environment, and traditional land uses like forestry.

Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust is a regional land trust that serves 23 towns in Worcester and Franklin counties. Mount Grace’s mission is protecting land and encouraging land stewardship for the benefit of the environment, the economy, and future generations. Since 1986, Mount Grace has helped conserve more than 32,000 acres of farms, working woodlands, recreational areas, and wildlife refuges. For more information on the October 20 Annual Meeting, volunteering, or donating, go to mountgrace.org.


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