Voters approve lease to sheep farmer

Ridgebury sheep farmer Whitney Freeman got hugs and handshakes from Conservation Commission members Monday night, Dec. 19, after a Town Meeting of about 20 people unanimously approved a five-year lease with her for 15 acres of the town’s former McKeon property off Old Stagecoach Road. The lease is for $1 a year, and enables her to seek a grant to build a well on the property.

“Congratulations,” Conservation Commission Chairman Jim Coyle said after the 15-minute meeting.

“Thank you,” said Freeman.

“That was a lot of hours,” she said of the effort to put the lease deal together, which dates back to August.

Freeman kept sheep, goats and llamas on the property last summer, under a separate agreement with the Conservation Commission.

The lease was needed to allow her to seek a grant to put in a well on the property under a U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service program that gives some financial support so farmers can dig wells, but has a prerequisite that the farmer control the land for at least five years. Even with the five-year lease, obtaining the grant is expected to be competitive, Freeman previously told the selectmen. That’s one reason she’s eager to get her application in before the new year — hoping she can get approval soon and dig a well next spring.

Water has in the past been provided by a neighboring property.

Most of the discussion at the meeting came in the form of questions from Ted Cleveland of Shields Lane. He wondered if there ought to be something to prevent animals from being kept on the site during the winter — maybe a seasonal limit should be written into the lease?

“We have put no restriction in,” Cleveland said.

Freeman said that simply as a matter of “good agricultural practice” her animals would spend winter months back at her main property, with its barn — Henny Penny Farm, on Ridgebury Road near the old Congregational church and cemetery.

“From mid-November to May 1, they come home for lambing,” she said.

Chairman Coyle said the Conservation Commission hadn’t felt a need to write restrictions of that sort into the lease.

“We’re not farmers. Whitney is,” he said. “We respect her judgment.”

“I’m looking at a worst-case scenario,” Cleveland said. “Somebody’s going to bend the rules, maybe they need a shed.”

Conservation Commission member Kitsey Snow disarmed that concern.

“We’re restricted by the deed,” she said. “There cannot be structures on the property.”

When no one else wanted the floor, Town Meeting moderator Ed Tyrrell recognized himself as a speaker in support of the lease, though his remarks referenced a worry some neighbors had voiced at a public hearing on the lease.

“We purchased this some years back as an American farm, and American farms have pigs on them!” Tyrrell said. “I don’t want anyone to think I have anything against pigs.”

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