Buyer found for Rice’s Roots Farm in Petersham

Rice’s Roots Farm in Petersham

Rice’s Roots Farm in Petersham CONTRIBUTED

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 12-01-2023 12:04 PM

PETERSHAM — Larry Buell, founder and co-director of University of the Wild, has announced that a buyer has been found for Rice’s Roots Farm, a 228-acre parcel located on East Street in Petersham.

Buell has identified the buyer as Michael Cook of North Brookfield. Cook, who owns several historic properties in Barre, has pledged to provide $300,000 of the $500,000 price of the property at closing. The balance, said Buell, will come from a series of long-term leases, local donations, and short-term, low interest loans.

The entire parcel is under a conservation restriction and must be used for agricultural purposes, said Buell, who envisions a community farm which will produce locally grown and consumed organic agricultural products.

He said University of the Wild and local grower Andre Pierre also have come up with $100,000 toward the purchase.

Cook, Buell continued, “(I)s giving us a long-term lease, in my case it’ll be 30 years, which could be extended to a 99-year ground lease. What I’ve been trying to do is to show that we can find different ways of owning land. What I want to do on all of the land (at Rice’s Roots Farm) is to put it into some kind of a trust. You could take a 99-year ground lease on (a portion of) that land trust, which is held in common, but you could pass it on to your heirs or sell it outright. While this particular land is not in an actual land trust — it’s going to be owned by an LLC — it’s based on those principles.”

Buell said he will be leasing 12 acres on which he will grow produce, which will be used to feed students and visitors at the University of the Wild. In addition, the students there will be taught how to grow food “in a regenerative way, not just sustainable. We’re having no-till gardening and it will be in the organic and permaculture ways of growing food.”

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Buell added, “This new anchor buyer is willing to have Andre grow food on the exact footprint that Connor Rice grew food on for 50 years. And Connor is willing to advise these new farmers, including my growers, on how to best use the property under strict conservation restrictions.

“My concern was that someone could put up one house, it could be a McMansion, and raise Morgan horses and golden retrievers. But now we have a local grower … who is going to grow food there, particularly for the farmers market, which was established 11 years ago in the town of Petersham.”

In addition to 37 acres of open land, there are 191 acres of managed forest.

“We learned from Robert Clark, former chair of the Conservation Commission, that there’s one of the most mature hickory tree stands east of the Mississippi River on that property,” Buell said. “And forest agriculture is becoming more important, whether it’s mushrooms or other edibles.”

In his letter to Buell and Pierre, Cook wrote, “My personal use interest (i.e. not for long-term public lease) is the barn, the designated building lot envelope, and the gardening area south of the barn. I am open to short-term leases of this area as well. My intent longer term is to see grains grown on the property if feasible. The barn could be adapted as a processing facility and a modest center for educating and entertaining residents and guests from the area.”

Buell said a variety of strategies would be employed to raise the remaining $100,000. First, he said, he intends to approach residents of Petersham, hoping to find 25 who are willing to either make a tax-exempt donation or agree to a short-term, low-interest loan. Buell hopes those residents will agree to a $1,000 donation in either form. He also will approach businesses in the North Quabbin area, asking them contribute to a goal of $25,000. Next, he wants to find a single donor committed to preserving the bobolink habitat on the property. Lastly, Buell said he will be seeking funds from small donors, “whether it’s $100 or $500 ... whatever.”

Buell explained there is a natural bobolink habitat on the farm property. That means farmers must refrain from mowing grass between June 1 and August 1, which is the bird’s nesting season. He said he was looking for a donor who would “forever protect” some four acres of the bobolink habitat.

Buell said it was time to practice what he called “climate smart agriculture.” “We can’t bring all that food from the San Juaquin Valley (in California) to Petersham and North Quabbin. We must start having our own system, and this can be a model for that.”

Rice’s Roots Farm, which is owned by Connor Rice, initially went on the market in April 2022 with an asking price of $850,000, according to Buell. Since that time, he and Pierre have made various offers on the property with negotiations finally leading to the sale price of $500,000. Both men say they’re committed to the concept of community grown and locally consumed produce. Now, said Buell, that commitment appears to have paid off.