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Neighbors and farms learn to get along in Holliston

Agricultural bylaws, boards play key role

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When Betsy Maxwell first looked at the house in Holliston three years ago, she heard some of her future neighbors before she saw them. They were crowing as she stepped out of the car.

“I heard roosters,” she said. “I was so taken aback. In Waltham, no one has chickens.”

She and her husband bought the house knowing there was a flock next door. Since then, along with many of the town’s other new residents, she has learned what it means to live in a community that is trying to protect its agricultural legacy. The Maxwells’ neighbors on two sides have chickens and or turkeys. Across the street live more poultry and a hive of honey bees. There are goats down the street.

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Holliston is among a growing number of communities in Massachusetts with a right-to-farm bylaw, approved as part of an effort to protect local agricultural operations.

Area towns that have adopted a form of the right-to-farm bylaw, and set up a committee to filter complaints about noise, odors, and other side effects of working farms, include Framingham, Millis, Sudbury, and Weston, according to the state.

This spring, Sherborn officials proposed, but then set aside, a right-to-farm bylaw after some residents expressed concerns about what it would cover. The town’s Agricultural Commission serves as a liaison for local farmers, other municipal agencies and residents.

The bylaws vary, but they all generally include a notification system for new residents. Homebuyers are informed that they’re moving into a community that recognizes agricultural rights, according to Rich Bonanno, president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation.

Over the past decade, 132 of the state’s 351 communities have adopted a right-to-farm bylaw, according to the state Department of Agricultural Resources, and the Massachusetts Association of Agricultural Commissions reports that as of last fall, 156 had established a committee to deal with farming issues.

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The additional protection is good for farmers, Bonanno said, but it is also good for people moving from urban areas, who may have lost touch with the realities of working farms.

In towns that have adopted a bylaw, the local agriculture board generally acts as adviser when conflicts arise, guiding other agencies on issues that may affect livestock, crops, or other forms of agriculture, Bonanno said. The issues can include complaints about tractor noise early in the morning, spraying of pesticides, or application of fertilizers.

As people move in alongside farms in fast-growing communities, or even in cities, conflicts do occur, he said, and sometimes the response is misguided. In one community, he said, town officials responded to noise complaints about roosters by proposing that all roosters have their vocal cords removed. The suggestion eventually was dropped.

State law protects farms that are 2 acres or more in size, Bonanno said, although a property has to have at least 5 acres under cultivation to get a tax reduction.

One of the recent trends, based on a census of commercial farming, is the rise of smaller farms, he said. According to a 2012 survey, the most recent year available, the acreage actively farmed in the state has remained the same, Bonanno said, but the number of farms has increased.

The census only counts commercial farms, those that report $1,000 or more in annual revenue.

“One of the things we’re seeing is a lot of people want to be more connected to agriculture,” Bonanno said. “They don’t want just a vegetable garden.”

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In Sherborn, supporters of the proposed bylaw included Alex Dowse, president of Dowse Orchards, which has 40 acres of apple orchards and 10 acres of Christmas trees. The farm he operates with his brother, Jon, has been in the family since 1778.

The orchard off Route 27 initially planted by his grandfather and father, starting in the 1920s, is now surrounded by development. Alex Dowse said he had supported the bylaw because it would have brought all agriculture-related concerns into better focus.

“We’ve become isolated islands, is what we are,” Dowse said of the commercial farms in town.

The brothers say they have tried hard to maintain good relations with their neighbors. But when their workday begins at 6 a.m. and ends at 11 p.m., neighbors notice. Jon Dowse recalled a recent conversation with one neighbor who “wished I had banker’s hours.”

Conflicts sometimes have to be addressed even in suburban backyard settings.

In Milford, which does not have either an agricultural committee or a right-to-farm bylaw, homeowner Lisa Vasile and her husband last year began beekeeping, inspired in part by a desire to alleviate the allergies of one of their children. Vasile had read articles that indicated eating local honey could help improve allergic conditions.

In their small backyard, Vasile and her family tend a hive of honey bees, now a year old. The insects coexist peacefully in the subdivision, Vasile said. She invited neighbors over to inspect the hive, once it was established. As long as people don’t bother the bees, the bees don’t bother people, she reported.

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“We had 150 people in my backyard for my daughter’s graduation party,” she said. “Nobody got stung.”

For her, the only concern about the neighborhood environment involves pesticide applications for lawns. She makes sure the lawn company is aware of the hive. And when people come over, she makes sure that anyone with a bee-sting allergy is prepared.

In Holliston, when farming-related issues do arise, the neighbors work it out, Betsy Maxwell said.

Her only problem, she said, has involved the honey bees across the street. They fly over and buzz around the family’s swimming pool, 10 to 20 at a time. The farmer has made several efforts to lure them back. So far, nothing has worked. But Maxwell said she takes it all in stride.

She loves living in Holliston and finds the animals charming, even the roosters that crow all day long.

“If I wake up and I hear them crowing, I find it comforting,” Maxwell said. “I’m not alone. Someone else is up other than me.”


Mary MacDonald can be reached at marymacdonal3@aol.com.