Nancy Nelson, superintendant of Minuteman National Historical Park, was kind enough to spend some of her time educating me about the Park Service and farming.
“Farming operations are going on all over the country in national parks”, she explains. “The benefit to the park is we get to keep a historic landscape. At the Minuteman Park we see the landscape as it was in 1775. We don’t grow the same crops now as they did then — it is not like Old Sturbridge Village — but we do keep the landscape open with agriculture. It is a lot easier for visitors to imagine how events unfolded that fateful April day if the fields are still there. And what better way to keep them open than with farmers?”
The Park Service does have guidelines and regulations that apply to farming on their land. Leasing relationships have a set of rules, special use permits another set, and cooperative agreements a third. There are guidelines about the use of pesticides and rules for dealing with for-profit farms — requiring open procedures for bidding for leases, for example. But the Service gives individual parks a surprising amount of independence on how they want to manage these relationships.“We’re not operating under a big mandate to do this”, says Nelson. “It is more at the park level to find ways to manage everyone’s safety and protect our resources as well as the public and the farmers. We have restrictions in terms of adding modern structures — like greenhouses –- which are essential for farmers. But we have no hard and fast rules. We have to take into account what the impact of a structure on the park will be. Will it be temporary? Will it be remote from most park functions?”
Right now Minuteman Park has a herd of heritage cattle on the park, as well as a beekeeper and corn and vegetable farms. They have had requests to raise pigs, chickens and goats, as well as allow high-tech experimental growing systems, and a family camp. Nancy says First Root Farm has done a great job, both farming and creating positive relationships in the community. But she is aware that the park’s limited space and facilities cannot accommodate everything it might want — a larger agricultural operation and a greenhouse being two examples.
“Also, some of our other farmers,” she says, “live nearby and take their machinery and equipment back with them when they go home at the end of the day. First Root can’t really do that, but we don’t have a place here to accommodate their equipment very well. Our barn is already used for many diverse purposes and we don’t have much other infrastructure.
“We originally had a concept of providing an incubator,” she continues, “where a farmer could have a place to perfect their skills and then move on. We had one farmer who was very focused on animals. He rotated out and that made a space for First Root. I forget how long ago that was, but First Root has been here much longer than the incubator farm model calls for. I think their aspirations are to stay longer. We need to set up a framework to manage better.”
The Park is open to proposals for more farming, but first wants to hire a resource manager who will focus on agriculture in the park. The task of exploring this needs care and thought to work though how best to do it, Nelson asserts.
“Our aspirations for farming have expanded,” she says. “and we need to develop a way to do that in a planned fashion. We are fully open to discussion about how to do it, and want to talk with agricultural commissions, farmers, town officials, and the park service itself to explore this potential. It has been a long time since parks and agricultural operations began cooperating and perhaps it needs to be looked at again. It is up to us to come up with a better process. There are so many people who are interested in it.”