Trustees scaled back operations at Chestnut Hill Farm

Above: This summer, you can enjoy passive recreation at Chestnut Hill Farm, but don’t go looking for fields of produce or goats to pet. The farmers were let go earlier this year and animals relocated. (image from Facebook)

Last fall, the Trustees started cancelling some of their regular programming at Chestnut Hill Farm. This year, they scaled back events much further and hit pause on farming the land.

Earlier today, I shared info about the ways that the public can still continue to enjoy the farm this summer. In this post, I’m focusing more on what isn’t happening and why, plus concerns expressed by the Conservation Commission, which has been waiting years for an updated management plan to be finalized.

In late January, there were media reports that the Trustees laid off 10% of its workforce across the state.* In February, Conservation Commission heard from residents dismayed about a resulting change in Southborough.

Prior customers of Chestnut Hill Farm’s annual CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) were notified that the program was being discontinued in Southborough. At their March 7th meeting, Conservation Agent Meliss Danza updated that she learned the Trustees were discontinuing farming at the farm and would just focus on the farm’s trails.

Vice Chair Ben Smith expressed frustration that the Trustees hadn’t sent a notice to the commission as a stakeholder in the property. (The Commission oversees the Town’s Conservation Restriction on the property.)

The Commission had been trying to finalize an updated farm management plan with the Trustees for over three years. The effort started in 2020 after residents and some officials raised concerns about trails that closed during the pandemic, parking issues, animal farming practices at the site, and other questions about whether the Trustees were complying with the Conservation Restriction (CR). The Trustees and Conservation had worked through most of the issues, but agreed that a mutually accepted updated Farm Management Plan was needed.

Smith told the Commission in March that he had believed they were close to completion, but the farming news changed that. Now the commission wanted the Trustees come in to discuss operation changes and any impacts to the plan.

I reached out to D.A. Hayden, the Trustees’ Regional Vice President for MetroWest. I asked for an explanation to share with readers about the operational changes at the farm. She responded by pointing to the Trustees’ reorganization and operating budget reduction earlier this year. (For details on that, scroll down.*) She followed:

As part of operational changes taking place at several properties throughout the organization, the Trustees looked at agriculture across the state and made the decision to adapt our operations at Chestnut Hill Farm.  The pause in farming at Chestnut Hill Farm will afford the Trustees time to evaluate future options and develop a plan for a sustainable working model as we continue to protect and maintain this precious property.

The Trustees livestock production is consolidated at Appleton Farms, which enables us to achieve our high standards of animal care and continue to pursue innovative agroecology projects, within a more sustainable model.  As we are not farming at Chestnut Hill Farm this year, the Farm Store is closed.

The statement also included information on how the Trustees are supporting conservationism at property, and maintain it for farming to potentially resume in the future. They are also using it for agriculture education:

We are continuing our Chestnut Hill Farm agroecology work surrounding the ground nesting bird/bobolink habitat and the accompanying ground nesting bird monitoring study.  The new pollinator meadow near the trailhead parking lot continues to be nurtured.  Other agroecology projects are taking place at the farm including pollinator hedgerows and native plant seed saving initiatives.  The farm’s agricultural resources are stewarded with cover crops to provide nutrients to the soils, which is important for future vegetable farming.

Several educational programs are occurring, including most recently with the Norfolk Agricultural High School interns. . . .

The children’s garden is planted with vegetables as is the area around the bean barn. . .

All of us at the Trustees share a deep appreciation for Chestnut Hill Farm, look forward to continuing to welcome visitors, and to building a plan for the future that will ensure this beloved place will benefit the Southborough community and beyond for years to come.

In meetings this spring, the Conservation Commission was pleased that the Trustees had planted cover crops and were working to protect/nurture nesting bobolinks on the farm. But they shared the public’s disappointment that the Trustees still couldn’t say if or when farming may resume in Southborough.

In April, Smith noted that the Trustees were out of compliance with the CR and needed to finalize the management plan. Hayden referred to an update of the plan every five years as being a suggestion in the CR, not requirement. However, she said the Trustees considered the plan done and would be ready to sign off if the Commission was.

The Commission wasn’t ready that night, and continued to hold off in May. They hoped to be ready for their next meeting. (That was initially scheduled for June but cancelled due to quorum issues. It is now scheduled for this Thursday, July 11th at 7:00 pm.)

In the meantime, the Commission planned to solicit input from Town Counsel about the farm’s CR. One question was whether the Trustees’ private rentals of the barn erected on the farm are an allowed use.

The use of the property under the CR was a point of contention between Select Board members and Trustees back in 2021 when the Select Board started refusing to sign off on liquor licenses for Trustees events at the farm. At the time, Select Board Member Marty Healey argued that the CR exclusively allowed passive recreation and educational activities at the farm. He believed that events serving alcohol/beer didn’t fit the definition. It was an opinion that the majority of the board and some on the Conservation Commission agreed with.

*In late January, media covered a Trustees email to staff that announced the lay off of thirty employees and elimination of 10 vacant positions. According to The Boston Globe, the CEO’s announcement cited “a multimillion-dollar structural deficit.” The Globe wrote:

In 2021, the Trustees reported a 20 percent rise in operating revenue as pandemic restrictions eased, according to a 2022 financial report. But [Mary Dettloff, the group’s director of public relations] said expenses have “far outpaced that revenue growth.”

The CEO apparently blamed inflation and “high labor and supply chain costs”.

At the time, the Trustees stated that they would continue to hold events and programming at each of their 120 properties, which would all remain open. It wasn’t publicly specified how properties would be impacted and the eliminated positions were unspecified. It is now clear that the cuts included the farm workers in Southborough as well as the open position for an events manager. (In the fall, I had been told some youth programs were “temporarily” being cancelled while they sought to fill that job.)

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