Making it happen

rochures are floating around town bearing a basket of vegetables and the mantra, “Make it Happen!” Before confusion prevents linking vegetables with making things happen, the words “Hollis Community Farm” catch the eye and it begins to make sense.

You see, there is no Hollis Community Farm. Not yet. But members of the would-be farm just cleared a major hurdle on the way to making it happen. Selectmen gave the Conservation Commission the authority to spend $160,000 of taxpayer money to get the fledgling project off the ground.

The money will pay for development rights to 21 acres of some of the most fertile farmland in New Hampshire, preventing a dwindling commodity from turning into another housing development.

The $160,000 will come with strings attached:

n Members have to prove through environmental testing that Peacock Orchard, the proposed site of the farm, is free of harmful substances such as lead, arsenic and DDT.

n Members have to meet their fund-raising goal and actually buy the land.

n Because the town would be buying the development rights, public access would have to be granted to parts of the farm during the off-season.

Residents Richard Kalin and his wife, Toby Tarnow, are longtime members of the Temple-Wilton Community Farm, the second oldest of about 1,000 Community Supported Agriculture farms nationwide. The two live in a 200-year-old farmhouse that used to be part of Peacock Orchard. It sits across the street from the orchard, located at the intersection of Federal Hill and Plain Roads.

“Because it’s very flat, it makes a perfect (site for a) development of six to 10 houses,” Tarnow said. “Here we are, surrounded by conservation land on all sides, but across the street, we would have been looking at houses.”

The couple has been involved in five or six successful attempts at saving land from development in town, including the Henry Hildreth conservation area, Tarnow said.

“Like many residents in Hollis, we’re here because most of us care about the quality of life that a rural community provides,” she said. Added to that was their desire to make organic produce more accessible.

“The organic farm industry is growing 20 percent per year,” Tarnow said. “If we stop putting poison into the environment, we won’t have so much disease. My good health is directly related to my ability to eat good food with huge life force and purity.”

Kalin and Tarnow saw an opportunity when Stephen and Robert Lievens, who own Woodmont Orchard and the Peacock property, put the land up for sale.

“Richard had been talking to the Lievenses for years, saying we wanted right of first refusal on the property,” Tarnow said. “If we could have bought it ourselves, we would have donated the development rights to the town.” But the land, so attractive to developers, was too costly for the couple to buy outright.

The couple knew there was a 70-family waiting list for membership at the Temple-Wilton Community Farm. If the couple could drum up support for a nonprofit community farm and get the financial and philosophical backing of the town, it thought it still might be able to save the land.

At $600,000, it wasn’t going to be easy. First, abutters of the site put down $240,000 of their own money toward the cost. A down payment was made and a purchase-and-sales agreement was drawn up for Kalin with an expiration date of April 15, 2004.

Then the Conservation Commission pledged the $160,000 toward buying the development rights. Selectmen also granted the project an easement that would restrict use of the land to agricultural pursuits, protecting it from development for the next century. The project was also granted preliminary approval for a $100,000 Federal Farmland Protection Program grant.

That left $100,000 to be scraped together to buy the land. Tarnow got to work, resulting in a local mailing asking for contributions, a Web site and the brochure with the basket of vegetables.

Inside the brochure was information on how the farm would work.

“Farmers put together a yearly budget. At the Temple-Wilton Community Farm, it works out to be about $80 per year per adult member,” Tarnow said. “The budget is OK’d by the members, then there’s a pledge meeting. Basically, members stand up and make pledges (to renew their memberships for the following year) and the budget is met. Once a week, the produce is put in one location and they take what they need.”

On the Web site is an agricultural history of the land. According to that site, the farmland was sold to the Lievenses around 1970. They replanted the fields, which had previously supported row crops, with apples, to profit from high prices at the time. But the brothers stopped production on the farm in 2000. Since then, the trees have just sat there, their branches moving from bare to fruit-laden and back again.

When Kalin, Tarnow and Peter Baker of the Conservation Commission presented the farm plan to selectmen last week, they were met with a variety of perspectives on their undertaking.

“I have a problem with people using the town for personal gain,” said Selectman Vahrij Manoukian, “You’re using taxpayer money to benefit certain people.”

Manoukian also voiced concerns over getting residents behind the project, seeing as voters nixed a plan to buy Woodmont Orchard land at last year’s Special Town Meeting because of contaminants found in the soil.

“The soil tests will be a big factor,” Tarnow said. “We’ll find out what we have to do to bring it back to health. It will take several years.”

Kalin said, due to the nature of organic farming, it was a given that members of the farm would also be concerned about contaminants.

Four of the five selectmen supported the idea.

“Asking the town for less than 25 percent (of the total cost of the land), that’s unique in all the deals that have come before us,” board member Mark Johnson said. “It’s true that there are some private interests involved, but there’s a lot of private money, too. I’d tell them to go out and get five more deals like this, but there aren’t five more deals.”

Future farm members are halfway through the callback list of people they sent letters to. From those residents, they have raised an additional $53,000 in pledges.

“We’re hearing people say, ‘We want to bring organic farming to Hollis,’” Kalin said.

For about $47,000 more, this town might just make it happen.