Fort River Farm Conservation Area in Amherst will be available to start-up farmers beginning next year

Saul Property -

Preliminary Site Plan to be modified based on ecological assessment

Scott Merzbach – Published in print: Thursday, June 11, 2015 – Daily Hampshire Gazette

AMHERST — By this time next year, start-up farmers could be working some of the land and growing crops at the Fort River Farm Conservation Area on Belchertown Road.

The nearly 20-acre parcel, purchased by annual Town Meeting for $150,950 last year using a combination of town Community Preservation Act money and a state Local Acquisition for Natural Diversity grant, is still nearly a year away from being ready to serve as both incubator space for new farmers, as well as a community garden that will produce food to be shared with local soup kitchens and meal sites

Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek said this week that between six and eight acres of tillable land will be advertised through requests for proposals to use variously sized parcels, in time for next year.   “We anticipate putting out an RFP for the incubator space for the 2016 growing season,” Ziomek said.

The town already licenses 65 to 75 acres of conservation land elsewhere in Amherst to more experienced farmers, but these spots at the Fort River Farm will be mostly aimed at students who come out of farm programs at the University of Massachusetts and Hampshire College, and Amherst College students interested in pursuing agriculture, Ziomek said.

The purchase of the farm was designed to be a learning space and the Grow Food Amherst organization will be among those recruiting local farmers who might serve as mentors and share equipment, as well as offer workshops and demonstrations to apprentice farmers and the public, in the future.

This year, though, is about what Ziomek calls “due diligence” with the property that has been actively farmed in the past. This includes mapping wetlands and the riverfront and protected resource areas.  “It really all starts with this ecological assessment,” Ziomek said.

This includes marking off areas for the incubator space, locating where a loop trail will go and how the community garden, which will grow fruits and vegetables to be donated to local groups, will be created.

John Gerber, co-chairman of Grow Food Amherst, said about one-third of an acre of the land has already been plowed and a cover crop will be planted. “This will help build organic matter and reduce weeds,” Gerber said.  That also prevents erosion, Ziomek said.

The site of the Amherst Pollinator Garden.

The site of the Amherst Pollinator Garden.

Development of the sharing garden is being undertaken by Stephanie Ciccarello, the town’s sustainability coordinator.  The first project will include planting buckwheat, sometime this month, which will begin attracting bees to that area of the farm.

Ciccarello said she will then create a section for pollinator plants. The pollinator garden,will attract more bees, as well as butterflies and hummingbirds. And she intends to plant wildfowers and native berry plants, likely blueberry and raspberry bushes and some other fruit-bearing plants, in September or October.

The idea is to have plants that require little upkeep and water, in part because it is hard to get water to the site. “Access to water is one of the limitations,” Ciccarello said.

The amount of fruits and vegetables available for donation to places such as the Amherst Survival Center and Not Bread Alone will be limited next year and in the early years of the project.  “We’re starting slowly and carefully,” Ciccarello said.

Among other work that remains to be done in the coming months is installing a crushed stone parking area for visitors and a pedestrian bridge that will provide access so children from the neighboring Fort River Elementary School can visit the farm.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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