How to start homesteading in Massachusetts

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The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is a New England state located on the East Coast. Because it has long been inhabited and is thus densely populated with little land to spare, Massachusetts is one of the most expensive states in the country to buy farmland. Moreover, the state has a tendency to be litigious about homesteading-related projects, like setting up home wind turbines.

Wondering how to start homesteading in Massachusetts? It’s a matter of navigating the financial and legal hurdles. 

If you plan to sell farm-fresh products from your farm or homestead, though, Massachusetts could be a lucrative place to do so. The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources estimates that there are 7,755 farms in Massachusetts working on over 523,000 acres to produce $492 million in agricultural products. The average farm in Massachusetts produces $63,470 of agricultural products on just 68 acres.

Moreover, the network for small scale farmers in Massachusetts is robust. An estimated 80 percent of Massachusetts farms are family-owned, while 95 percent fit the category of “small farms” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition of sales below $250,000.  

If you think homesteading in Massachusetts may be right for you, here is what you need to know about getting started.

Buying farmland in Massachusetts

According to 2017 data from the United States Department of Agriculture, the average cost for farm real estate in Massachusetts per acre was $10,400. This is well above the national average of $3,080 per acre, or the average for the Northeast of $5,050 per acre.

Luckily, the Massachusetts state government offers programs to support farmers. The Matching Enterprise Grants for Agriculture program assists beginning farmers in the first five years of business by providing technical assistance and grants. Funding is available on a one-to-one matching reimbursement with a $10,000 maximum. 

The federal government also offers assistance for buying and maintaining farmland in Massachusetts. The Farm Service Agency’s Direct Farm Operating loans provide new agricultural producers with a gateway into agricultural production by financing the cost of operating a farm. The Operating and Farm Ownership Microloan serves farmers in non-traditional operations, including truck farms, farms participating in direct marketing or those using organic growing methods. They also expanded the Youth Loan program into urban areas. While the loans are available to all farmers, they focus on historically underserved farmers and ranchers, which, including women and ethnic minorities.

Additionally, the Farm Service Agency has “Beginning Farmer” direct and guaranteed loan programs, which focuses on the particular credit needs of farmers and ranchers in their first 10 years of operation. They offer a variety of loans, including Farm Ownership loans to provide access to land and capital, and Farm Operating loans to assist beginning farmers with operating or family living expenses. 

Massachusetts homesteaders can look to non-profit and private entities for financial support as well. Farm Credit East offers FarmStart loans to agricultural start-ups with business plans that need the “last critical dollar” of funding. Equity Trust, Inc. is a Massachusetts-based private non-profit that provides technical assistance on land tenure issues and more. The Carrot Project provides loans to small Massachusetts farms (particularly organic operations) for projects that improve operations, increase income or address emergency needs. 

In Massachusetts, licensing for a working farm is conducted at the local level. There is no legal distinction between industrial-scale farms, small farms and homesteads.

Growing crops in Massachusetts

Massachusetts is divided into three hardiness zones: 5 through 7. Zones in Massachusetts range from 5a in the western Berkshire Mountains to 7a on Cape Cod. 

In Massachusetts, soil tends to be clay-like. Warm-weather vegetables like peppers and tomatoes will do better in soil that has plenty of organic matter, so the soil will likely need a rich compost. 

Corn is a major vegetable grown in Massachusetts and throughout New England. Both sweet corn and ornamental corn grows well in Massachusetts soil, and planting different types of corn with a variety of maturation dates will provide harvest throughout the late summer and early fall.

Cold season crops like broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts grow well in Massachusetts. These crops prefer soil on the alkaline side, so be sure to test your soil and purchase the proper amendments. If you live in a neighborhood with old homes (as many homes in Massachusetts are), watch out for lead particles in the soil. Many older paints and other construction materials contain lead, which can be dangerous for growing vegetables.

Carrots can also stay in the ground through the winter for an early spring harvest.

Potatoes also grow well in Massachusetts. The tuber can survive in a range of soil types but thrive in well-drained loamy or sandy soil. Sweet potatoes need a longer and warmer growing season and do not do as well in Massachusetts. 

The cool early spring temperatures provide the perfect climate for lettuce and leafy greens seed germination and maturation. Good varieties for Massachusetts growers include smooth-leaf and savoy spinach, as well as iceberg, butterhead, romaine and leaf lettuce. Plant as seeds or young plants in the spring in locations that receive afternoon shade and plenty of water. A second crop can be started for fall when the hot weather has passed. Season extenders can help lengthen the growing season into the Massachusetts winter as well.

Water use laws in Massachusetts

Image by Andrew Newman from Pixabay

Since 1988, persons planning to withdraw water from ground or surface sources for purposes in excess of an annual average of 100,000 gallons per day or 9 million gallons in any three month period must apply for a Water Management Act Permit. Withdrawers typically requiring a permit include fish hatcheries and agricultural and industrial users. 

Fun fact: cranberry growers in Massachusetts with less than about 5 unregistered acres in production do not require a Water Management Act permit

Raising animals in Massachusetts

Generally, the Board of Health monitors the livestock and their conditions of farms in Massachusetts, though ordinances for livestock also vary based on the city or town (see the Massachusetts Food Systems Collaborative for a model ordinance). Many towns also require that livestock immunization records are readily available upon the Board of Health’s request.

In general, though, the Commonwealth also regulates livestock disease control — for example the destruction of animals diagnosed with foot and mouth disease or the quarantine of animals with vesicular stomatitis.

The regulations on keeping backyard chickens vary based on location in Massachusetts. Check with your town office before purchasing backyard fowl. 

Livestock like cattle, swine, goats, sheep, llamas and horses must have valid health certificates issued by an accredited veterinarian within 30 days of import to Massachusetts. All cattle, swine, sheep and goats must be identified by an official U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ear-tag, or by a tattoo issued by a breeder or recognized registry and accompanied by proof of registration. Slaughter animals must be identified by ear tags, back tags or other USDA approved identification.

All livestock, horses, poultry, waterfowl and other animals, including pets entering Massachusetts from other states, must comply with state regulations to prevent the spread of disease. 

Despite the history of the Boston Common as the very first public grazing land in the colonies, there is no public range land in Massachusetts, so all livestock must be kept on private property.

Selling food in Massachusetts

One thing is for sure: Bay Staters love to eat local. At nearly $48 million, Massachusetts ranks fifth in the nation for direct market sales of agricultural products and third in the nation for direct market sales per operation. Direct market sales account for 10 percent of the state’s total sales of agricultural products. Moreover, there are 178 farmers’ markets operating in Massachusetts. 

There are suggested guidelines for selling at farmers markets in Massachusetts — for example, keep produce off the ground and use a clearly lettered sign identifying yourself as a permanent fixture at your market stand — but farmers are allowed to sell their fruits, vegetables or other farm products raised or produced by them or their family at farmers markets without obtaining a hawkers’ or peddlers’ license. Hired help at farmers market are also subject to minimum wage under Massachusetts labor laws.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health has the authority to license wholesale food processors and distributors but exempts any person who is a purveyor of fresh fruits and vegetables or a farmer who produces and sells raw farm products, including eggs.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts also defines a food establishment (which comes with their own set of health and safety regulations) as an operation that stores, prepares, serves, vends or otherwise provides food for human consumption. The definition exempts produce stands that offer only whole, uncut fresh fruits and vegetables, but includes farmers who produce value-added products like sauces and canned foods.

Home-based food businesses are allowed within specific regulatory limitations. Retail residential kitchen operations can only sell directly to consumers, and they are inspected and licensed by the local board of health. A residential kitchen that wholesales its product is required to obtain a License for Food Processing, or a Distribution at Wholesale from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. 

Residential kitchens are strictly limited to the preparation of non-potentially hazardous foods like baked goods, confectionery, jams and jellies, even if they have potentially-hazardous ingredients such as fruit, milk or peanut butter.

The preparation and sale of potentially hazardous foods such as cream-filled pastries, cheesecake, custard and other foods that can support the growth of disease-causing bacteria are strictly prohibited. Perishable foods that require refrigeration, such as cut fruit and vegetables, tomato and barbeque sauce, pickled products, relishes and salad dressings are also not permitted for sale by residential kitchens.

All foods that are manufactured or packaged using processes that require state or federal control — acidification, hot fill, vacuum-packaging and the like — are prohibited. Garlic-in-oil products are also not permitted.

Only household members may be employed in residential kitchen operations. The use of brokers, wholesalers, and warehouses by residential kitchen operators to store, sell, and distribute foods prepared in residential kitchens is prohibited. Food products manufactured in Massachusetts residential kitchens may not be sold out-of-state, because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not recognize these foods as originating from an approved source.

The Massachusetts and federal labeling regulations require specific information on every packaged food label, including a list of all ingredients listed in descending order of predominance by weight, net weight of product, recommended storage conditions, nutrition labeling and the name and address of the manufacturer, packer or distributor.

Before selling any eggs, check for any area regulations with local Board of Health. In general, eggs should be collected at least twice a day, in the morning and afternoon. You can sell cracked and stained eggs, but only from the property where they are produced when packed separately and labeled as such. 

If you need to wash eggs, do not allow the eggs to sit in water. Water must move across the surface of the shell at all times. The water must be at least 10 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the egg otherwise bacteria may be pulled through the shell into the egg. If the wash water comes from a private well, the water must be tested every six months by a state-certified testing laboratory for specific bacteria, like coliform bacteria, and the test results must be kept on file for inspection.

Eggs should be offered for sale in clean, unused cartons that are labeled correctly. The FDA requires a safe handling statement to appear on the carton. The producer’s name, address, and phone number should also be included. 

When it comes to marketing your eggs, you have several options. You may choose to size and grade your eggs or not. Grading is done by candling and sizing is done by weight. In any case, you must describe what is in the carton. Many small producers choose to identify their eggs as “Not Graded and Not Sized”. “Not Graded and Not Sized” (also referred to as “Nest Run”), means that you have not candled or weighed the eggs and are packing them without sorting in any way. All eggs, regardless of Grade or Size or those sold as Not Graded and Not Sized, should be clean and have no visible signs of breakage.

Living off-grid in Massachusetts

Rainwater collection is both legal and encouraged in Massachusetts. Composting toilet systems are also allowed, as long as health department guidelines are followed.

Massachusetts is fairly progressive in the world of renewable energy. In fact, homeowners that reduce demand on the grid by installing battery storage are eligible for financial incentives

When it comes to off-grid energy production, many areas of Massachusetts are prime locations for wind power. Some areas are more suited for home solar panels based on local incentives — the town of Shrewsbury offers zero percent solar loans up to $10,000 for residents. With the right water rights and access to creek, micro-hydropower may work as well.

You may require legal council for home renewable energy infrastructure, though. In 2009, a woman in Bourne, Massachusetts, who planned to build a 10-kilowatt wind turbine to power her home was stonewalled by opposition from the local planning board who saw the 132-foot to-be windmill as a safety hazard that would have “an adverse effect on the character of the neighborhood.” Bourne lost her appeal to the planning board and was ultimately not permitted to build her wind turbine.

Tax incentives for farmers in Massachusetts

Massachusetts’s Farming and Fisheries Tax Credit of 3 percent of the cost of acquiring property or constructing on property during the tax year may be available to certain personal income taxpayers in Massachusetts primarily engaged in agriculture, farming, or commercial fishing. The credit is for federal income tax purposes of qualifying property acquired, constructed or erected.

The qualifying properties must be personal or other tangible properties, including buildings and structures located in Massachusetts used solely in farming, agriculture, or fishing and depreciable with a useful life of at least 4 years. Unused credits may be carried forward for the next 3 tax years.

The credit may be recaptured if the qualifying farm is disposed of or no longer used as farmland before the end of its useful life. Recapture of the credit is not necessary if the property has been in qualified use for more than 12 years.

Massachusetts organizations for new farmers

The Beginning Farmer Network of Massachusetts (BFN/Mass) is a collaborative network of farmers and farm service providers dedicated to beginning farmer success in Massachusetts. The organization hosts events and meetups for new farmers, as well as a referral network, and compiles available resources and services for farmers just getting started with their agricultural operations.

The Northeast Organic Farming Association in Massachusetts has a Beginning Farmers Program with three distinct educational components that offer young farmers and those who are coming to farming after a diverse range of careers to develop professional farming skills.

Based at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project aims to improve local and regional food systems by training the next generation of farmers to produce “sustainable, nutritious, and culturally-appropriate” food. The organization provides farmer training, an apprenticeship network and a variety of community food projects.

The Young Farmer Network of Southeastern New England is a chapter of the National Young Farmers Coalition that serves Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. We are a farmer-run network that works towards the viability of new farms by providing opportunities for education and advocacy, and strengthening the social and professional networks between farmers from all backgrounds and ages. The organization hosts an annual Young Farmer Night series, which involves biweekly tours and potlucks on farms in the region. In the winter, they run free or low-cost Short Courses, whose goal is to delve deeply into specific nichle topics that aren’t always covered in conference or traditional workshop settings. 

How difficult is it to homestead in Massachusetts?

Starting a homestead in Massachusetts is expensive. If you hope to build a self-sufficient homestead on a budget, Massachusetts may not be the right state for you. If you are an enterprising homesteader looking to make money off your crops, however, Massachusetts has a strong network of small and beginning farmers and a hot market for local goods.

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