Land Use

Rhode Island Must Do Better to Preserve Vital Farmlands

Well-managed farmland provides food and shelter to native wildlife, controls flooding and prevents erosion, and protects wetlands, watersheds and air quality


In 1945 Rhode Island featured 264,734 acres of farmland. Today, there are 61,223 acres, like this farm in South Kingstown. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

WESTERLY, R.I. — Avondale Farm Preserve, the site of some of the state’s oldest farmland, was very nearly a parking lot.

The preserve sits on a beautiful 50-acre parcel just 4 miles south of downtown, close to the banks of the Pawcatuck River. Owned and managed by the Westerly Land Trust (WLT) since 1998, it’s a popular local spot for hiking, passive recreation, agriculture, and bird-watching. Every year the property hosts an annual Farm Dinner and 5K race to boost conservation dollars for the land trust.

For much of its history prior to its acquisition and preservation by WLT, Avondale Farm was owned and operated by the Chapman family. It was bought in 1812 by Israel Chapman, and for the next 150 years — more than half the United States’ existence as a country — his descendants used the property to raise cows, pigs, and chickens, and later used the vast fields for haying.

By the mid-1980s there were no more Chapmans left that were interested in continuing the family tradition, and 71 acres of the farm were sold to a New York developer who originally planned to build 108 condominiums on the property, before changing his plans a few years later to construct 43 single-family homes.

“I grew up in Westerly,” said Jennifer Fusco, WLT’s executive director. “Avondale Farm was sort of an old family farm, and when the folks couldn’t run the farm anymore, recognizing it had very high development value at a time when development was booming, Avondale became a developer’s dream.”

The development of Avondale Farm, said Fusco, actually prompted the creation of the Westerly Land Trust, in 1987. In the early days it was focused just on preserving this one piece of farmland. The trust didn’t have any money; it was mostly people sitting around a kitchen table planning ways to help conserve land.

WLT bought Avondale Farm after a decade of public opposition to its development at town meetings, one lawsuit, and an avalanche of private donations from community members. It was the first property preserved by the trust, and Avondale Farm Preserve has become the rock on which the land trust has built its conservation mission.

While most people think of untouched forestland, hiking trails or other outdoor activities when they hear the phrase “land trust,” for many Rhode Island conservation organizations, protecting farmland is a key component of their mission.

For WLT, farmland preservation didn’t stop with Avondale. It also owns the Winnapaug Farm Preserve, which has agricultural land for corn and hay, and the Barlow Nature Preserve, much of which is, as of today, actively being farmed.

Since 2019, the land trust has rented out agricultural land at Barlow Nature Preserve to farmers looking for a place to start. WLT’s current tenants include Frontier Farm, a 2.5-acre vegetable farm established in 2018, and Echo Rock Flowers, a 1-acre flower farm. A third tenant operates a composting business in a greenhouse.

The land trust model of farmland preservation is one that has been growing in popularity nationwide as more and more land is swallowed by development. Land trusts, so long as they maintain their mission of conserving land and making it available to the public, are exempt from the traditional property taxes that come with owning large amounts of land. Thanks to their status as nonprofits, they are immune from development pressure to flip the land into housing or commercial projects, allowing them to lease farmland to new farmers at lower-than-average prices.

“There’s been this terrific evolution for us since 2019,” Fusco said. “We started with these farmers, and now five or six years later we are still working with the same farmers as they expand. It’s a model that has worked for us, and we hope to be able to replicate it.”

Development pressure to build housing, commercial space, and ground-mounted solar arrays are squeezing farmers out of a difficult occupation. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

Vanishing agricultural past and an uncertain future

While Avondale Farm has proven to be a massive success story for the Westerly Land Trust, preserving other farmland in Rhode Island hasn’t nearly been as successful. There was a time just barely still in living memory, around the close of the Second World War, when large tracts of the state outside of Providence were not the suburban sprawl we know today, but endless acres of fertile cropland and pastures. Today, for many Rhode Islanders, that sounds as alien as the landscape of the moon.

The state hasn’t bled farmland so much as hemorrhaged it. In 1945, Rhode Island contained 264,734 acres of worked farmland spread across 3,603 individual farms, according to agricultural census records maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Today, thanks to nearly 80 years of development, that number is a lot smaller. The latest numbers from the USDA reported only 61,223 acres of land in the state were used for agricultural production, across 1,054 farms.

It’s not hard to see why Rhode Island farmland has effectively vanished. The pressures facing farmers today are the same ones the Chapmans were facing in the 1980s when they sold Avondale Farm to developers: the money for developing land into housing or commercial space is too good to pass up, especially as fewer Rhode Islanders choose to become farmers.

At a House Finance Committee hearing last year, Matt Tracy, land access manager for the Southside Community Land Trust and a former farmer, emphasized to lawmakers the struggles felt by Rhode Island farmers in the 21st century. Tracy said he ran a “moderately successful” family vegetable farm in Johnston for 15 years that allowed Tracy and his wife to pay a mortgage and support themselves.

But they had to improvise, said Tracy, and move across multiple parcels of land. They never achieved the kind of success that allowed them to live on a permanent piece of farmland.

“One thing we struggled with is land security,” Tracy said. “We couldn’t seem to find the piece of land we could hold onto with a secure lease that would allow us to make long-term decisions about what to do with our business.”

Tracy was testifying in support of the state’s farmland preservation programs, which he told lawmakers made land cheaper and easier to access for farmers just starting up or without dedicated access to a farming space. Cheaper leases, he said, lower ownership costs and make farmland less susceptible to the lure of property developers.

“Now it’s even crazier,” Tracy told lawmakers. “If I was in the market for a farm right now, I would be really struggling to find something.”

Development pressure to build housing, commercial space, or other developments are squeezing farmers like Tracy out of the industry. A 2022 report from American Farmland Trust (AFT) estimated that if policies remained the same in Rhode Island, the state could expect to lose 8,100 acres of its farmland by 2040, about 15% of its total remaining agricultural land, with much of that expected to be the best-rated farmland in the state.

That’s the same as losing 200 farms, 600 farm-related jobs, and $8 million of economic benefit. Ultimately, Rhode Island is going to lose a good portion of its farmland. Under smart-growth policies advocated for by AFT, the state is still expected to lose 5,500 acres to development in the next 15 years.

Rhode Island isn’t alone; it’s following a trend happening everywhere. New England as a region has lost 11 million acres over the past 15 years, and states across the nation are expected to lose 18.4 million acres of farmland by 2040, an area almost the size of South Carolina.

Rhode Island is on track to lose 8,100 acres of its farmland by 2040. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

Rhode Island’s quixotic quest to preserve farmland

Enter the Agricultural Lands Preservation Commission (ALPC). It was created in 1981, just a scant few years before the Chapmans sold the family farm, by lawmakers who saw the state’s agricultural past vanishing and wanted to protect what they could. It operates as the chief public preservation program for farmland around the state, from Aquidneck Island to Westerly.

Operating within the state Department of Environmental Management, it was funded initially with a $10 million state bond, and since then it received regular infusions of bond money to continue its mission of preserving farmland.

That kind of funding mechanism is pretty typical when it comes to land preservation deals of all kinds; deals that, whether for farmland or forestland, involve a number of high-level appraisals and legal documents like easements to be affixed to the property deed in perpetuity. Many of the parcels are also large and have multiple entities helping with funding.

“Bond issues allow us to work over longer periods of time,” said Kate Sayles, director of the Rhode Island Land Trust Council. “When we have line items in the budget, the expectation is we spend that allocated money before the end of the fiscal year. Land conservation projects, whether they be farmland or a forest or an open space, take a long time, because there are often multiple funding partners and willing landowners that are involved in the process. Nothing happens overnight.

“It’s not unusual for an acquisition to take 18 to 24 months or even longer. Being able to work within a framework that allows the time to be longer is even more helpful than having it as a line item that we need to spend immediately.”

While it’s a little-known program to most Rhode Islanders, and given only a modest budget to help farms, ALPC has been remarkably successful at preserving farmland in its 43-year history. Since 1985, ALPC has helped conserve 8,252 acres of farmland across the state, while spending only $38 million in taxpayer money to do it.

How the commission works is pretty simple. It’s an appointed board, with nominees picked by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. Commissioners score any potential farms seeking entry into the program by a pretty specific list of program criteria. Any money approved by ALPC after a farm has been accepted into the program is rarely the entire amount for any land deal, but it does help unlock federal or philanthropic funds for farmland preservation.

“It’s got to have a history of being financially sustainable, it’s got to have a farming model that worked,” said Diane Lynch, president of the Rhode Island Food Policy Council and a commissioner serving on the ALPC for more than a decade. “It should be in an area with other farms nearby so they can work together, share equipment and other things. It should also protect groundwater and, if possible, in or near a natural heritage area.”

Keeping farmland as farmland has environmental benefits. Well-managed farmland provides food and shelter to local wildlife, controls flooding and prevents erosion, protects wetlands, watersheds, and air quality, and improves the overall health of soils. Its chief environmental benefits come from combating the effects of dense suburban sprawl: the spread of impervious surfaces, polluted stormwater runoff, negative impacts to wetlands, and so on.

Rhode Island farmland, which has already precipitously declined over the past 80 years, is facing renewed pressure post-pandemic from developers to convert agricultural land into housing subdivisions and commercial projects as land prices soar and the state programs designed to help preserve farmland run out of money. (Rob Smith/ecoRI News)

State preservation programs running dry

But the job of keeping farmland as farmland became a lot harder starting in 2022. The ALPC, which traditionally secures funding for its programs via bond funding, was left out of that year’s green economy bond, with no explicit reason why. The program was in danger of shuttering entirely due to lack of funding until lawmakers swooped in last session to infuse ALPC with a $2.5 million allocation, enough to last the commission until the next bond vote later this year, according to Lynch.

The ALPC has spent around $1.1 million, said Lynch, and closed on two farm deals. It also added another farm to the program: Champlin’s Farm, a 90-acre parcel on Boom Bridge Road. It hasn’t been an active farm since the 1990s, and the WLT said it hopes to add it to its group of conservation properties. ALPC voted to enter the farm into the program at the end of last year, and approved allocating $700,000 — about half the estimated amount to buy the farm and place conservation easements on it — with WLT currently fundraising to cover the rest.

“This is a big farm,” Lynch said about the allocation. “It’s going to enable two adjacent farms to increase their organic grazing. It’s going to protect the Pawcatuck River. They’re going to use it to do farm trails [for public access].”

But while ALPC has contributed money, and Fusco said the WLT is urgently fundraising the rest, the current owner hasn’t made any decision about his property. Still, Fusco said she was optimistic.

“This is another way hopefully that the land trust can contribute to keeping farmers on the land and expanding it back into agricultural production,” Fusco said. “I’m hopeful we can create another venue for local agriculture.”

Farmland preservation took another hard hit earlier this year. Gov. Dan McKee’s fiscal 2025 budget proposal, which included all the bond items expected to appear on the ballot this November, once again didn’t include money for farmland preservation. 

This time, however, ALPC wasn’t the only one left at the altar. The state’s open space acquisition and habitat restoration programs were also left out of the governor’s $50 million bond proposal for green economy projects. If passed as proposed, it would be the first time in nearly 40 years the state’s conservation programs didn’t appear on the ballot.

Lynch recently told ecoRI News she was “very disappointed” not to see farmland preservation in the bond for a second time in a row. The move puts ALPC right back where it was the previous year, with the added danger of being unable to function until a future bond year, possibly until 2027 or later. Despite the $2.5 cash bump, the vast bulk of ALPC’s remaining budget has been obligated to farms in the program’s already extensive queue.

“We spend, anywhere on average, between a million to a million and a half dollars a year, every single year,” Lynch said. “There’s a little bit of wiggle room there, but not a lot.”

In its project queue currently, ALPC has around 40 farms, all of them in various stages of completion, and far too many for the program’s current funding level to cover. On top of that, Lynch said she identified another 1,500 acres of the highest-rated agricultural land ALPC could preserve across 16 individual farms. The cost? A cool $25 million, over 10 times what the program nets in a typical year from a state bond.

Beyond those farms, said Lynch, there’s another 2,500 in lower-rated agricultural land that could also be preserved by ALPC in the future; but without program funding that’s just never going to happen.

“It’s not like we don’t have projects to work on,” Lynch said. “There’s just a queue out there, we’ve already gotten the application from the farmer, we’ve approved it, and we’ve ranked it high enough so we think it’s a good enough investment. But we just haven’t gotten around to it.”

Rhode Island hasn’t even set a specific farmland preservation goal. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

The future of farming

In the meantime, lawmakers are coming to the rescue. Earlier this month Rep. Megan Cotter, D-Exeter, submitted a bill (H7550) to add $16 million to make “the green bond greener,” and put program money back for much of the state’s preservation programs.

“The legislature has typically used the Green Bond to promote important conservation projects,” Cotter said in a statement. “We have a responsibility to not let that fall by the wayside.”

“We all benefit from cleaner air and water that results from preserving green spaces, and we help ensure the survival of wildlife, native species and beauty that are unique to our state,” said Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown, the sponsor of the Senate version of the bill. “These programs are absolutely worth funding and we want to make sure they continue into the future.”

DiPalma, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, sponsored legislation last year that would have made a direct allocation from the general fund to ALPC for farmland preservation.

Both bills — as well as McKee’s green bond proposal — have yet to be scheduled for a hearing in the General Assembly’s finance committees.

But outside of funding, what needs to happen for farmland to be saved in Rhode Island?

Lynch said she would like to see the state develop more strategies for preserving farmland, something that nearby Massachusetts has successfully executed. Rhode Island, meanwhile, hasn’t set a specific farmland preservation goal.

“I think the state is doing as much as they can given the resources it has,” Lynch said. “But if the state invested a little more in a farmland strategy or a soil health strategy, that would help, but I understand we have limited resources to do it.”

Sayles said conservationists shouldn’t be operating in silos, apart from affordable housing advocates and other land-use advocates that can be seen as conflicting with land preservation. She also noted that, while Rhode Island chooses to use state bond money to fund land conservation programs, neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut have dedicated budget line items for conservation.

“If we started at a baseline and recognize we all need a safe place to live with those things, then that’s where we’re coming from discussing it as a local land use issue where we’re all working together to ensure that we’re getting those things puts us in a better position,” Sayles said. “I don’t think they’re competing.”

Fusco emphasized that WLT isn’t anti-housing, noting a number of urban parcels were specifically chosen to take some of the development pressure off other open space areas within the town. She said the land trust likes to work with developers to secure more green space during development projects for the benefit of everybody.

“It’s about finding a good balance,” Fusco said. “I don’t think paving over prime agricultural soils is a smart move. I think we need to think about how we’re going to feed the people we’re building houses for. I think we have to think about the livelihood of people who are generating an economy, and the people who are putting good food on our plates.”


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  1. discouraging that despite having already lost about 77% of the farmland we had after WW2, the McKee administration doesn’t see farmland as a valuable resource. RI is so dependent on food from outside, that leaves us so vulnerable to high prices and shortages as outside sources of food are also under pressure from development and climate change. The lack of Green Bond support is not his only related disappointment, his transportation policy of massive expenditures to increase highway capacity on Routes 4, 95, 295, 37, 146 and more is to enable people to drive faster over longer distances and so that spurs development in the hinterlands and leaves cities behind. To try to both have more housing and save ag land there should be much more emphasis on infill development and transit oriented development, but McKee an his administration is undermining transit instead.
    One other factor in the reported loss of farmland not mentioned is population growth. At the 1945 referenced, RI’s population was about 715,000, now its almost 1.1 million. Fitting in an additional 375,000 people or so obviously would take a big toll on agricultural and natural areas (as it has done elsewhere and is still doing)

  2. Agrivoltaics really needs to be discussed at the ALPC, RI Land Trust Council and the Rhode Island Food Policy Council. It has a growing momentum in NH and around the US. Small on-site and larger grid-connected applications can really help out farmers. Farmers can benefit from additional lease revenue or energy savings while creating shelters for their animals from the weather and more space for harvesting crops that thrive in partial or low sunlight. Farmers can then diversify their crops and have the opportunity to grow different produce that’s not price dependent on massive farms out of state.

    This should be incorporated into future farm land or development rights acquisitions. Some of those 40 farms can benefit and more can get funding through this. Buying the farm and development rights and restricting what farmers can do is an outdated practice, this really needs to be updated to the present. Hopefully farmers that sold their rights long ago can have the opportunity to reinvigorate their land with agrivoltaics.

  3. What can we as citizens of this state to help?
    . This sickens me with all the wasted money on others areas that this state has wasted with transportation alone! People don’t realize how important farming is to the environment alone and to this planet’s future . Gov McKee and his focus on electric power for the environment is a joke if we don’t focus on saving our farmlands first.

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