Keeping open space open

Johnson1Richard and Beth Johnson’s dairy farm is a prime piece of real estate in Kittery, but nature lovers can breathe a sigh of relief, there won’t be an outlet mall built here. The Johnsons are dedicated to their property – Rustlewood – remaining a farm for years to come. The best way to ensure that would happen was to put the nearly 300 acres (about 200 acres in Kittery and another 90 next door in Eliot) into a conservation easement with the Kittery Land Trust. In doing so, the Johnsons give up any development rights to the property but will continue to run their farm as it has been since Richard’s father started the dairy in 1947.

Originally from Belmont, MA, Chester Johnson, the family patriarch, spent summers in Kittery when he was growing up, and worked at a farm just down the road from where he would eventually settle. It was during that time that he developed an interest in dairy farming “and in the farmer’s daughter,” says Richard, referring to his mother.

Though his original plan was to be a doctor, Chester studied agriculture at University of Massachusetts. His father and brothers were all carpenters. “My dad went rogue,” Richard says. Chester and his young bride leased a farm in Bridgewater, MA, before they moved to what they would name “Rustlewood” (because of the sound the wind made blowing through the trees) with three children and 20 milk cows. They bought up surrounding overgrown farmland piece by piece, bringing it back into production. As the dairy grew, so did their family. They had seven sons and two daughters, with Richard being the youngest son. Richard always had the greatest desire among his siblings to continue the farm. “It’s either in your blood or it isn’t,” he says. “Some (of the siblings) couldn’t get away quick enough.”

In 1982, the farm was incorporated and one brother, Ken, did work with Richard on the farm for 23 years. Their father retired in 2004, though he still kept himself busy on the farm until shortly before his death at the age of 88 in 2007, and the brother left the farm with half of the dairy cows in 2005. Richard was left with 90 cows (48 that were milking at the time) and has built back up to about 170 with about half currently milking. The Johnsons’ three children have not shown an interest in continuing the dairy, though their eldest son does help with the milking, and their daughter’s husband has started a large vegetable garden on the property and is selling to nearby restaurants. Their youngest son, who is still in high school and who Beth says is more “mechanically inclined,” also helps with milking. Richard’s brother David also works for him now and has been a great help, Richard says.

“I want to make sure this stays a farm,” Richard says. “It’s what my parents did all their lives.” The Johnsons approached the Kittery Land Trust about the trust acquiring an easement on the land in 2008. Executive Director Christine Bennett says the Johnsons’ decision is of great importance to the land trust and to the Kittery community “for a number of reasons. Number one, it’s the last large working farm in Kittery. It’s the largest tract of land under one single owner in Kittery. And farm land is disappearing so quickly in Southern Maine. It’s important that land like Rustlewood continue to be farmed. When you lose one large farm like that, it has a domino effect.” When neighbors first saw surveyors on the property, they got nervous. “The neighbors were calling,” Beth says. Their fears were soon laid to rest when the Johnson’s explained what they were doing. “They all love it,” Richard adds. This is the largest piece of land that the Kittery Land Trust has ever secured, but Bennett said it is not the size but the fact that it is a farm easement that has made the transaction challenging. “You have to modify the standard conservation easement to allow for flexibility for future farming,” Bennett says. “Farming creates a lot of changes on the land, and you have to write the easement so that it’s not too rigid.”

As part of the agreement, the Johnsons and any subsequent owners have to keep the current fields cleared and open, not allowing them to fill in with brush or trees. They cannot subdivide the land but the building of new or additional agricultural structures would be allowed. The land can be leased out to other farmers if the Johnsons decided they did not want to farm it anymore. Richard says it was his parents’ wish for the land to remain a farm, and he shares that wish. It’s not only the mass of open land that makes Rustlewood desirable. The farm includes some of the best agricultural soils in the area and is home to a major watershed. The southern portion of the property contains close to one mile of the headwaters of Spruce Creek, while the northern section drains to Cutts Ridge Brook and on to the York River. The Johnsons allow hunting, trapping, cross country skiing, bird watching and other forms of passive recreational use on their land, and that will continue under the easement.