Elderly farmers concerned over sale to Maine Farmland Trust

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By Diana George Chapin

When Robert and Erma Elwell moved into the little brick cape at the end of a meandering road in Unity in 1945, the young couple became the fifth owners of the 1810 farmhouse and the surrounding farm and forestland.

Over the years they milked as many as 175 Jersey cows, raised their two daughters, worked the land and contributed to their community in numerous ways.

According to Robert, now 90, the farm was considered the best potato farm in Waldo County, “back in the day.”

After living on the same road for nearly three-quarters of a century, people around here know the Elwells. Out and about in the community, people are apt to offer unsolicited truth about the pair: “They’re some really good folks.”

In 2011, the Elwells sold their nearly 500-acre farm to Maine Farmland Trust, Inc. (MFT), one of Maine’s most prominent land trusts. To augment its mission to preserve farmland, MFT purchases land, places a conservation easement on it and either sells it or, as in the case of the Elwell farm, facilitates the farm business with tenant farmers.

Robert had inquired with a man employed by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension about to the rental value of the farm. Soon after that conversation, the Elwells were paid a visit by two individuals from MFT.

“Two women from the Maine Farmland Trust came right here into our kitchen,” Erma, 87, said. “They told us they had some grant money they could use to buy our farm, and they gave us one week to make the decision. They said if we didn’t make the decision in a week’s time, they’d lose their money. Whether that was the truth or an excuse to get us to sign it quick, I don’t know.”

“It took two of them,” Robert adds. “They don’t work alone.”

The Elwells felt trapped. And pressured. With no private buyers in sight, they started the process of selling to MFT by signing an “Intent to Sell” agreement. They report that the document had no opt-out clause.

“They talked us into signing the papers that day,” Erma said. “Well, you know, we were busy working nearly 24 hours a day, all those years. Robert was road commissioner for 25 years, sanded the roads here for 40 years, was on the fire department and is still on the budget committee. I just didn’t think we should be made to feel belittled into selling our place.”

Many within the land trust community promote conservation easements as “voluntary,” with landowners drafting restrictions that suit their desires for the future use of their land. But for the Elwells, that was not as easy as it sounds, and the tenor of the ensuing conversations with MFT representatives has left the Elwells with some strong reservations about ever recommending a similar move to other farmers.

One of the conditions of the sale of the farm to MFT is that the Elwells will be able to live in the farmhouse until their deaths or until they decide to move out. Robert and Erma report that a final payment of $150,000 will be paid by MFT to them within 30 days of their departure from the premises or to their estate upon the last survivor’s passing.

“With 69 years of living here in June, we have many accumulations and relics,” Erma says. “Can you see us moving all these things at our age? I just don’t think so.”

“We laid out some of the restrictions on things we wanted to see in the deed,” she said.  “We wanted the snowmobile trail to stay, hunting rights for the family, land for our granddaughter.”

The relationship with the initial lawyer the Elwells used to advocate for them throughout the transaction was terminated because Robert and Erma did not feel their views were adequately heard. They spent a “sizeable sum of about $25,000,” according to Robert, extracting themselves from that relationship and hiring another lawyer to craft the easement to reflect their wishes for the property.

“It was a fight all the way, getting what we wanted in the deed,” Erma says.

The deed conveying the Elwell farm to MFT shows that Robert and Erma’s descendants to their current great-grandchildren and step great-grandchildren have the right to “hunt responsibly on the premises,” as long as “the condition that exercise of this right shall not interfere with the farming activities on the premises,” either by MFT or MFT tenants.

As a term of the deed, the Elwells may harvest up to 18 cords of firewood annually for their personal use. They may take only dying, diseased or storm-damaged trees in the woodlots noted by MFTs surveyor, unless they agree in writing to different terms with the trust. If MFT obtains a forest management plan for the property, then all of the Elwell’s harvesting must conform to that plan.

The Elwells reserved for themselves through the deed “the right for themselves and any family members assisting them to ‘walk up on the hill’ until the time when they are both deceased. Said ‘hill’ is depicted on Exhibit A [of the deed.]”

The Elwells are concerned about the future of their former property.

Before the sale of their farm to MFT, the couple sold their dairy herd and associated equipment to their farmhand, who is now a tenant of MFT on the property. After nearly seven decades on the place, they know what kind of financial and human resources are necessary to properly upkeep the buildings and land.

They’re not confident that MFT has or will use resources to keep the structures and lands in shape.

“It’s probably the most complicated deal we’ve ever done,” said John Piotti, executive director of MFT and a fellow Unity resident. “Here we are—we bought this under our Buy-Protect-Sell program—but now we’re in this really weird world.”

“It’s unusual,” Piotti said. “We’re buying land that comes with an elderly couple living on it and a farmer who comes with it. And we may still be able to sell that property. There are people who like the idea of owning farmland because it’s a smart thing to do. Farmland as farmland is only going to go up in value. They like the idea of owning a piece of farmland. But they don’t want to be a farmer, at least not right now, and maybe never. However, they would be very pleased with the idea of someone being on that property who is farming it.”

Would MFT sell the farm to an individual, another land trust or an educational institution with the Elwells still living in the farmhouse?

“We don’t know what we’re going to do with it, to be honest,” Piotti said. “I sold it to the board with the idea that we could still sell it—and legally we can.  We think there might be a market.”

For the Elwells, who lived a life of freedom based on their possession of private property, who adapted to decades of change by tapping their own economic and intellectual resourcefulness, this current situation takes some adjusting.

“Sometimes I look out the window and see the cows grazing, and I just pretend they’re still mine,” says Erma. “It’s just what I have to do to accept our current situation.”

This is part of an ongoing series about Maine Land Trusts – Read all articles here.

Diana George Chapin is a freelance writer and a fourth-generation family farmer from Montville, Maine.

1 COMMENT

  1. It would be interesting to know who the two women were who put all that pressure on the Elwells to sell within a week, and what their political affiliations are.

  2. From my testimony to the Maine Subcommittee on Agriculture in April of 2011:

    Hearing on LD 548 “An Act To Provide Regular Funding for the
    Land for Maine’s Future Fund”.

    Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and
    Forestry

    April 5, 2011

    I am opposed to LD 548.

     

    We recite the Pledge of Allegiance often. It begins with “I
    pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the
    republic for which it stands…”.

     

    Yes, the United States is a republic.  One of the cornerstones of a Constitutional
    republic is liberty.  Our forefathers
    knew that to have liberty, private property is essential.

     

    “Property
    must be secured, or liberty cannot exist.”– John Adams

     “Private property and freedom are
    inseparable.”– George
    Washington

    What we have in the Land for Maine’s Future Fund is the
    transfer of private property. 

     

    We have scores of dedicated people working with and for the
    Land for Maine’s Future Fund.  I know
    they have altruistic motives for wanting to be involved.  I hope they, like me, will come to realize,
    that the result of their actions are detrimental to the future liberty of our
    children.

     

    Agenda 21, the United Nations initiative for sustainable
    development, is an initiative that is “a comprehensive plan of action to be
    taken globally, nationally, and locally by organizations of the United Nations
    System, Governments, and Major Groups in every area in which human impacts
    (sic) on the environment.”  This Agenda
    specifically sites land ownership as a source of wealth and one that should be
    held only by the state.  While the
    implementation of Agenda 21 is too massive to cover here, I urge all of you who
    care about the future of our country and our farms to research it.  This is not conjecture, this is fully
    documented and being implemented now under terms like “smart growth”, “best
    practices”, and the wildlands project.

     

    The surest way of impoverishing a nation is to take away
    property rights, especially those that are held for agriculture.  I find it even worse that some of the funds
    being used to acquire property are actually coming from taxpayers.  A key component of Agenda 21 is increasing
    regulations on farming and industry. 
    This is important to make small scale, businesses non-competitive; and
    in the case of farms, delivers farmers in droves into the hands of the Land
    Trusts.  We observe the USDA and FDA
    implementing this agenda every day.

     

    We are beginning to see people wake up to this threat to our
    country.  A move recently taken by
    Maryland Commissioners abolished the County’s Office of Sustainability. They
    then voted unanimously to drop out of the UN’s International Council for Local
    Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI).

     

    Those who have taken the time to research the United Nations
    and Agenda 21, recognize the organization as one of the greatest threats to our
    country.  More and more of us are
    requesting that our Representatives and Senators in Washington defund the
    United Nations, and many want the U.S. to withdraw from the Organization.  We also want to see the United Nations out of
    Maine, starting with the Land Trusts.

    Thank you.

  3. If they do not like the deal why did MFT not just drop it? I will call them and report later.

  4. I am so gland your so important but your statements have nothing to do with the article John. try not to take up so much space.

  5. It was disheartening to read such a misleading and inaccurate article in the Maine Wire, media arm of the Maine Heritage Policy Center which touts itself as a “research and educational organization.” While the writer may disagree with the role and functions of land trusts in Maine, readers deserve better than a story full of gross inaccuracies and misleading information.
    I have worked for Maine Farmland Trust, a statewide land trust devoted to protect Maine’s agricultural lands from non-farm development, for 12 years as its staff attorney.  Over those years, through its various programs, MFT has been very effective in assisting landowners meet their goals to preserve their land as working farmland.
    Contrary to what is implied in this article, MFT works ONLY with willing landowners.  Our relationship with the Elwells began back around 2002-03, when one of their advisors suggested they invite MFT to the farm to discuss how it might be protected under a federal and state grant program to purchase development rights.  Over the years that followed, the Elwells, their advisors and MFT met a number of times to explore alternate scenarios before finally, in 2010, coming up with an agreeable plan designed to meet the Elwells’ needs and their goals for their land.  (These goals, as stated to MFT, have always included protecting their land as a farm, and ensuring continued availability of snowmobile trails.  We support these.)   The Elwells, who understandably did not want to move from their farm, agreed to the arrangement whereby MFT would purchase and conserve the farm, with the Elwells retaining the right to live in their home, have some use of the woodlot and other recreational use of the land (as correctly reported in your article.)  Over the course of the years, and prior to this agreement with MFT, the Elwells selected a successor farmer leased their operation to him.   MFT continues to lease to this farmer, and will sell the property subject to that lease so that he can continue.
    In order to meet a time-sensitive grant application deadline (for funding that would assist MFT with the purchase and protection of the farm) two MFT staff did go to the farm to have the Elwells sign the purchase and sale agreement.  However, that document was not simply thrust upon them. Rather, over the preceding weeks it had been thoroughly reviewed by the Elwells, and had been drafted in part and reviewed in full by their attorney. He had suggested that for his client’s convenience and in order to meet our grant deadline, a visit to the farm to get signatures would be appropriate.
    At no time did MFT put pressure on the Elwells to sell.  From our perspective, we were working together to meet their goals.  They regularly consulted not only with their lawyer, but also with their children who live in the area.   It is important to note that the couple signed the contract to sell the farm well over a year before the sale was finalized.  They had ample opportunity for a change of mind, which MFT would have honored.  Indeed, shortly before closing, I checked with the Elwells’ lawyer to ensure that they wanted to proceed, offering to agree to cancel the contract if they didn’t want to sell.  Their lawyer scheduled the closing.
    Perhaps when they spoke with your writer, the Elwells were experiencing sellers’ remorse.  That is understandable.  It is never easy for farmers to sell a farm into which they have put their heart and soul over decades.  Nevertheless, time marches on, and people need to retire.  Selling the farm generates needed income.  Selling it to an organization that will ensure that farming can continue into the future is a dream of many farmers.
    I invite anyone concerned about this particular project, or about Maine Farmland Trust in general, to contact us.  I invite The Maine Wire to sit down with our Executive Director and get the facts straight.

  6.  So important, why thanks.  As far as my testimony having nothing to do with this article, and land trusts, hmm….  See:

    http://www.newswithviews.com/Levant/nancy32.htm

    http://www.freedomadvocates.org/articles/planning_-_smart_growth/%22smart_growth%22_is_%22agenda_21%22_2003022112/

    You can pull up hundreds of youtube videos and articles about the land trusts and agenda 21.  The truth is right in front of us, but heck, guess it’s not cool to see the truth these days.

  7. Sounds like they got a good deal– they sold the land, they don’t have to move. No one made them sell.  I don’t see any losers here. Maybe seller’s regret, but MFT did just what it is supposed to do. Good for them!

  8. As for the Article 21 bogeyman, anyone is free to buy land that comes up for sale. Don’t want a trust to buy it? Then pony up. Otherwise, too bad. 

  9. To Ms. Perkins and the community, The purchase of this farm by MFT was a VERY complicated one. Your comment makes it sound like the “Elwells”  were muchly involved with MFT for YEARS. I’m sorry, WRONG. I could respond to each and every one of your comments but I neither have the time nor care to. Knowing the Elwells as so many people do, they are the most honest people I have ever known.
    And the plans for this to be kept as a dairy farm are what????

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