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.