Edgartown severs Katama Farm lease with Trustees

Conservation commission demands Trustees leave the farm in one month.

Katama Farm in 2018. Edgartown is ending its lease with the Trustees amid concerns about the farm's direction. — Stacey Rupolo

Updated 4:45 pm

The Edgartown conservation commission terminated its lease with The Trustees of Reservations following a series of lease violations.

Earlier this year, commissioners raised concerns with Trustee’s Islands director Sam Hart about the use of the farm. Commissioners felt there was too big a focus on farm events and the teaching kitchen at the FARM Institute, and too little focus on agricultural production. Among the many issues, commissioners were unhappy with the significant decline in livestock compared with the 2016 farm-use plan. 

In a July 30 letter to Hart, conservation commission chair Edward Vincent Jr. wrote that current violations of the lease include emphasizing educational events over agriculture production, using the farm as storage for other Trustees properties, subleasing the farm without town approval, understaffing the farm, and late rent payments. The Trustees had not paid the $12,500 annual rent, which was due Jan. 1, as of the July 30 letter, but has since made that payment, according to Vincent’s follow-up letter.

Vincent added that the Trustees submitted revised use plans in April 2019 and 2020 — neither of which the commission approved. The letter of termination requires the Trustees “remove themselves” from Katama Farm by Sept. 15.

“The Trustees continue to be in violation of the lease — to maintain a robust farming operation at Katama Farm,” Vincent wrote in part. “The proposed use plans shifted the focus of Katama Farm from farming to education and special events. For this reason, the town never approved the proposed use plans, and the operation of Katama Farm remains subject to the 2016 use plan.”

In a statement Monday, Hart wrote the organization was “surprised and disappointed” the lease was terminated, and The Trustees had to leave in less than a month. He wrote that The Trustees attempted to reconcile differences over the past few months.

“At the core of the misalignment with the town is The Trustees’ interest in balancing a quality livestock operation, improving the ecology of the site, and providing a vibrant educational farm experience, whereas the former use plan was focused on high-production agriculture,” Hart wrote. “In 2016, we inherited a financially nonviable agricultural model that brought hay from off-Island and had depleted the soils. Thus, we had hoped to find middle ground with the town on the number of animals in production, while also providing educational opportunities for the residents and visitors in farm-based experiences.”

In response to the commission’s concerns about The Trustees’ use of the farm, Hart said part of reallocating farmland use was to protect an endangered nesting grasshopper sparrow in the sandplain grassland. The Trustees reversed this, per the town’s request.

“Integration of The FARM Institute was only possible due to the generosity of Islanders. Over 300 people donated to make the integration possible. With this philanthropy, since 2016 The Trustees has invested nearly $2 million of capital in the town infrastructure at the FARM, including establishing a new teaching kitchen that opened this year, replacing the roof on the barn, and replenishing grazing and production soils. During The Trustees’ tenure as stewards, the FARM Institute has hosted nearly 5,000 Island resident students and their families, as well as hundreds of other families, via farm-based educational programs. In so doing, we have connected more youth to sustainable agriculture and introduced a new generation to an essential appreciation of farming. The Trustees manages more than 2,000 acres of farmland across the state, and operates six community farms, including the nation’s oldest operating farm, and we have greatly enjoyed bringing that expansive expertise to our work at Katama Farm in partnership with a committed staff and volunteers on Island,” Hart wrote.

Speaking to the Times by phone on Monday evening, Hart said the Trustees submitted a revised use plan in April, but did not hear back from the town.

“Communication has certainly been challenging,” Hart said. “We’re always open to dialogue with the commission, and it’s just unfortunate that wasn’t able to happen.”

Hart said the Trustees have been working to make the farm economically sustainable, and felt they were working with the town in good faith. He reiterated his surprise at the termination notice.

“We just got the letter today, and we’re weighing all our options,” Hart said of what’s next for the FARM Institute. “We don’t know yet. We’re sort of processing this information.”

The Trustees took control of the FARM Institute and its 182-acre Katama Farm lease in 2016. The farm is one of six farms across Massachusetts that The Trustees operate.

Vincent wrote that under the lease, The Trustees agreed to use the farmland to primarily raise “cattle and other farm animals,” and that the farm should be used “primarily as a livestock operation.”

In the original 2016 agreement, the FARM Institute boasted 65 cattle, more than 100 sheep, 300 chickens, two pigs, 70 turkeys, numerous rabbits, and a special duck, but animal numbers have fallen.

According to Vincent’s letter, Katama Farm has approximately 20 cattle, “a few” sheep and chickens, “some” goats, and no pigs. There are 24 additional cows on the farm that belong to Morning Glory Farm, which Vincent writes are not grazing according to the use plan presented to the town last April.

Hart’s statement on Monday stated there were 23 cows on the farm, with another 20 expected to arrive at the end of the month. He added that eight pigs, 100 chickens, sheep, and goats are currently at the farm. The goats require a final round of deworming treatment, and will be moved off the farm on Wednesday for an ecology grazing program, according to Hart. There are five employees who work at the farm.

In addition to the lack of livestock, Vincent also took issue with the lack of staffing. The 2016 use plan describes the farm having eight employees; currently there are five.

“The fundamental difference in vision between the town and The Trustees for Katama Farm is one that does not seem reconcilable,” Vincent wrote. “The town acknowledges that the recent state of emergency due to COVID-19 has complicated operations, including delaying the return of some animals to the premises; this does not, however, justify the ongoing lack of farm activity at Katama Farm.”

On Monday, Vincent wrote in a letter to Hart that there was a July 30 meeting between himself, Hart, conservation agent Jane Varkonda, town counsel Ron Rappaport, and selectmen Michael Donaroma to negotiate a “friendly departure” from Katama Farm. Following the meeting and several e-mail exchanges, Vincent wrote, the efforts proved unsuccessful.

Vincent also claimed there were now only nine cattle on the farm.

“It serves no useful purpose to continue to recite our strong disappointment with The Trustees’ management of Katama Farm,” Vincent wrote.

Updated with comments from Hart.