Could the former Drew Gardens property still support-a commercial farm? That was the question before the Drew Gardens Task Force on Thursday night.
Two pairs of experts provided their take on whether the contentious agriculturally restricted property could be financially viable if it once again held nothing but a farm.
In short, the answer appears to be no, at least in terms of direct sales to consumers.
Elizabeth Almeida, owner of the Fat Moon Farm, originally considered purchasing the property. However, she told the task force that the property could yield approximately $200,000 to $400,000 worth of gross sales from crops depending on the configuration of the lot. That figure does not include the extensive renovation needed to get the land ready for such intensive agricultural use.
Two years ago, prior to the ongoing degradation of the lot, she considered somewhere between $150,000 and $300,000 for the property, but nowhere near the $750,000 paid by Keith Goddard in 2001 or the $650,000 paid by Ebi Masalehdan in 2014.
The task force also received insight from David Dumaresq, better known as “Farmer Dave.”
In addition to operating the town-owned Hill Orchard in Westford, Dumaresq also operates farms in Tewksbury and Dracut and is no stranger to state-level agricultural preservation restrictions.
However, for his agriculturally restricted 30-acre parcel in Dracut, he paid only $425,000. That property also included infrastructural additions not present currently at the former Drew Gardens parcels.
When it comes to whether the property could support a farm, Dumaresq said it might be possible with a focus on more profitable crops grown in greenhouses or value-added aspects such as pick-your-own fruit operations, but commercial viability would be unlikely on such a small piece of land with such high property values.
Dumaresq also said that a maximum of $500 per acre could be expected from a farmer. He also noted that higher-profit crops such as blueberries or apples would be unlikely without a 30 to 50-year lease allowing for infrastructural improvements to be recouped gradually.
Massachusetts Farm Bureau representative Brad Mitchell advised against trying to find comparable lots elsewhere and instead look at 61A reports given to the Massachusetts Department of Revenue that track crop values per acre. He also added that high density pig farming is generally not commercially viable in Massachusetts.
The task force also heard testimony from Springdell Farm’s Jamie Cruz.
If the restaurant becomes a reality, Masalehdan has contracted Cruz to operate a working farm on the northern two-thirds of the property that would provide some of the fruits and vegetables used within the restaurant.
It was unclear what percentage of the food served on the restaurant would come from crops produced on-site by Cruz during growing seasons, but she indicated that shortages would be likely without a distinct focus. She also told the board that Masalehdan has reached out to other local farmers to provide food for the restaurant as well if it eventually is built.
Cruz told the task force that almost all of the northern two-thirds of the property would be used for growing in some way, with the high-tensile orchards on the northwestern part of the property being slightly set back from Boston Road to allow room for eventual sidewalk construction.
She also agreed with Almeida’s assessment on needed infrastructural repairs, particularly regarding the soil itself, which she referred to as “dirty dirt” and including a significant amount of refuse.
However, she also added a sustainable economic value for the crops could be much lower as part of products sold at the proposed restaurant than they would be on their own.
The opposition was most notably represented on Thursday by Boston Road resident Robert Jefferies, who believed the farming aspect of the proposal was minimal in comparison to the impact of the restaurant.
Ultimately, he saw the “toy farm” being proposed as little more than a loophole for what he stated would classify as a major commercial project, which is prohibited in residentially-zoned lots like these under the town’s zoning bylaws.
The task force’s next meeting is scheduled for July 28. A discussion is scheduled on Aug. 11 regarding Masalehdan’s recent amendments to proposed legal agreements regarding the agricultural restrictions.
Subcommittee meetings are also expected in early August. A final recommendation is expected by Sept. 8.
A full video of this meeting is coming soon to westfordcat.org