Town orchard parcel leased to Mass. growers

HOLLIS -­ The town has leased roughly 175 acres of Woodmont West, town-owned orchards on the west side of Route 122, to Lanni Orchards of Lunenburg, Mass.

Selectmen made the announcement Monday night, two days before voters at Town Meeting approved a warrant article that will allow the town to lease the orchards for up to 25 years.

The initial lease expires Dec. 31, but Pat Lanni, owner and operator of Lanni Orchards with his two cousins, said the company entered into the agreement understanding that a second lease would likely be offered next year to extend the commitment.

“It gives us a significant increase in apple production,” Lanni said of the lease agreement.

In addition to the town-owned west orchards, Lanni has also leased 90 acres on the east side, property owned by developer Steven Moheban, who purchased the Woodmont Orchards land last year from the Lievens brothers.

Until the end of last year, the Lievens brothers, owners of the Londonderry-based Woodmont apple business, had leased and farmed the parcel, part of a larger tract that the Lievens family had farmed here since the early 1960s.

In November, the Lievens brothers sold three parcels on the east side of the road to Moheban.

Four years earlier, the apple growers had sold the acre west orchards to the town for $3.25 million, a pur

180-acre west orchards to the town for $3.25 million, a purchase the town made to keep the land from being developed.

On Dec. 31, when their lease with the town expired, the Lievens brothers closed their Hollis operation, a wholesale business with a small retail store.

The orchards were established there in 1920, and in 1962, the grandfather of the brothers took over the farm, naming it Woodmont Orchards.

Lanni, who on Thursday had already dispatched crews to begin pruning the east orchards, said he will continue the operation, retaining the farm manager who worked for the Lievens brothers and re-hiring the migrant farm workers who were employed there for years.

Lanni said he plans to use the buildings located on the property as well, including a storage facility and bunkhouse for the workers.

Although there is also a packing house on the land, the farmer said he is likely to continue packing operations in Lunenburg.

Lanni also grows apples on land in nearby Fitchburg, Mass.

“The nice part about the block is that it has a much wider spectrum of different varieties,” Lanni said of the Woodmont Orchards, mentioning empire, red delicious, early Paula Reds, and Macouns.

Lanni also plans to continue to grow and harvest peaches from trees on the Woodmont land.

The Lanni Orchards, like Woodmont, was started in the early 1960s and is now being run by a third generation.

“We started in 1963 after my grandfather immigrated from Italy,” Lanni said, explaining that his grandfather and father farmed in “the old country.”

Lunenburg is located about a half hour from Hollis, not far from the New Hampshire border.

Troy Brown, the Hollis Town Administrator, described the lease agreement as serendipitous.

“It’s a great deal for the town,” Brown said on Thursday, a day after voters approved a warrant article at Town Meeting that will allow the town to lease Woodmont Orchards for up to 25 years. “Number one, we get the trees pruned and treated, and the orchard will be maintained at no expense to the town.”

The lease agreement also ensures that residents will continue to enjoy the scenic view the orchards on either side of Route 122 have afforded for generations.

The iconic icehouse, recently demolished and rebuilt in replica, is located in the west orchards.

Brown said two other local farmers have expressed interest in leasing parcels, one for growing grapes for a winemaking business, the other for apple and vegetable farming.

“If they had been un-maintained for a year, we could have lost the orchard,” Brown said, adding that it would have taken “money and years to get the land back” into condition for farming.

When the Lievens brothers began advertising last year to sell the east orchards, the town negotiated, but without success, to buy the land.

Moheban, who runs the Andover, Mass.-based Sky Orchard Realty Trust, and Woodmont Orchards, closed the sale on two parcels in early November, while a smaller parcel was transferred in October.

Altogether, the Lievens brothers sold more than 90 acres to the developer.

Unlike neighboring Lull and Brookdale farms, which both grow and sell apples and other produce and have diversified by offering bakery and other products, Woodmont was strictly a wholesale apple producer.

Lanni said he has no plans to expand the small, retail side of the business.

The Lievens brothers had sold small quantities of apples direct to consumers out of a packing building located close to the road.