For decades, Rollie’s Farm in Lowell has been a popular place for local residents to pick up fresh corn and tomatoes during summer, and Christmas trees during the holiday season.
Now as the farm’s owner, Roland “Rollie” Perron, prepares to retire, three nonprofits are teaming up to permanently preserve the 20-acre property as open space for public enjoyment.
Under the partnership involving Mass Audubon, Lowell Parks & Conservation Trust, and Mill City Grows, the Varnum Avenue property would encompass an urban wildlife sanctuary and education center, and a site for community-oriented farming.
“We are excited to continue the historical use of this property as a farm growing food for the community and for agricultural and nature programming for children and adults,” said Renata Pomponi, senior regional director of Mass Audubon.
Located in Lowell’s Pawtucketville section close to the Merrimack River, the property — considered the city’s last family farm — includes a 10-acre section fronting Varnum Avenue where Perron grows corn and tomatoes, and a rear 10-acre section where he raises Christmas trees.
In addition to its value as an agricultural resource, Pomponi said the property connects to Lowell-Dracut-Tyngsborough State Forest, making its preservation important to wildlife protection. Coyote, bobcat, deer, and fisher all have been spotted on the site.
The plan depends on the success of a joint fund-raising campaign by the three groups to cover the cost of the purchase, according to Jane Calvin, executive director of Lowell Parks & Conservation Trust, an urban land conservation group.
Mass Audubon and Lowell Parks & Conservation negotiated options to jointly purchase the 10-acre front parcel from Perron, and the 10-acre rear parcel, which his siblings own through a family trust, Calvin said. The price for each property is $1.925 million, for a total of just under $4 million.
Perron, 69, said he is retiring — gradually. He intends to continue his Christmas tree operation through 2023. His tentative plan is to make 2022 his last year of growing corn and tomatoes.
The agreements require Mass Audubon and Lowell Parks & Conservation to purchase the front 10 acres within 30 months, and the rear portion within two years. It also allows Perron to continue his farming through those respective periods.
Plans call for Mill City Grows to raise vegetables on the lower 10 acres. The food justice organization currently raises crops at 20 gardens in Lowell. As with its existing sites, the group plans a wide assortment of crops — from African white corn to turmeric — reflecting the varied tastes of a diverse city.
In the space bordering the fields and the upper acres, Mill City plans a “food forest,” an area of more permanent plants needing less tending — from fruit trees and strawberry bushes to flowering plants — for public enjoyment.
“It’s a space the community can literally be invited into to pick what they want, have a healthy snack. It will be a great space for school groups to come learn where their food comes from,” said Mill City’s executive director, Jessica Wilson, whose group also will oversee the planned community garden.
Audubon and Lowell Parks & Conservation, which have long collaborated to offer after-school programs in Lowell, will partner to create and manage the urban wildlife sanctuary on the back 10 acres. Plans call for trails and an education center, making the site ideal for teaching school children and others about nature and conservation, the two groups said.
Organizers are hailing the agreement as an example of how organizations can work together to save a valuable natural resource, particularly in an urban setting.
“It’s a wonderful partnership,” Calvin said. “As a partnership we are able to do more together than we do separately.”
“This project is probably the most important urban conservation project we are focused on at Mass Audubon today,” David O’Neill, president of the statewide organization, said in an interview.
“It also represents what we hope to be able to accomplish in other communities,” he said. “Especially in under-represented communities in Massachusetts there is a nature deficit. Our hope is to build the type of partnerships we have in Lowell, which are essential to our success in trying to provide green spaces in urban communities.”
Focusing on urban landscapes is essential, O’Neill said, because “more tree canopy, more parks, and more trails are important for biodiversity, for climate resilience, and for people’s health. That became very clear during COVID where certain communities had access to getting outside and experiencing nature as a respite from the pandemic, and others did not.”
Perron said his late parents purchased the property in 1953 to maintain as a family farm. He took over operations in 1974 and has been growing corn, tomatoes, and Christmas trees ever since.
“I made a name for myself. I took a lot of pride in my farming techniques,” he said. “Somehow I got the reputation for having the best tasting corn and tomatoes in the area. People liked the trees, too — they like fresh-cut trees.”
Perron said he is pleased at the plan to protect the farm.
“I like the idea of the land staying as open space and being preserved, rather than turning it into a housing development,” he said.
“I really believe the people of Lowell deserve this space,” Wilson said. “It’s something the city will benefit from for years to come.”
John Laidler can be reached at email@example.com.