In 2022, millions of Americans were introduced to the minutiae of land conservation through an unexpected source, the television series Yellowstone on the Paramount Network.
The show revolves around the fictional Dutton family, who own the vast Yellowstone Dutton Ranch in Montana, led by Kevin Costner’s portrayal of John Dutton III, the fifth-generation patriarch. Dutton’s commitment to protecting his family’s land from developers leads him to place the ranch under the safeguard of a conservation easement through a land trust.
A conservation easement (or Conservation Restriction, as we call them here in Massachusetts) is a legal agreement that restricts certain uses of the land to protect its natural, scenic, or historic qualities. Essentially, it’s a voluntary agreement where the landowner agrees to limit development and other changes to the property that might endanger the land’s values, such as air and water quality, biodiversity of flora and fauna, sensitive ecosystems, and scenic landscape views and watershed areas. The easement’s terms can vary widely but typically remain in perpetuity, binding future landowners to the same restrictions. In return, landowners may receive compensation through tax deductions.
Yellowstone’s conservation storyline was a surprisingly accurate portrayal of a pressing issue faced by multigenerational farmers and land-owning families. How do you preserve your heritage and way of life when the pressure to sell is so high?
One September afternoon, while seated in the living room of Arthur West, a seventh-generation farmer and a patriarch in his own right, it became clear that I had found the answer to my question.
“If we didn’t have what you folks are doing, if we didn’t have the APR program, hell, 90% of this land would be gone” says Arthur West, gesturing out the window of his living room in the direction of Hadley’s rolling fields, and the picturesque Mount Holyoke Range that looms over them.
The West family began conserving their land in 2006, as the family set out to ensure that the farm would never be developed and would always be preserved for agricultural use.
The West’s first Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) was recorded in July 2006 and marked the inception of their ambitious endeavor, protecting 116 acres. In 2019, an additional 108 acres were conserved under a second APR.
The culmination of their conservation efforts came in June 2023 when the family recorded their third APR securing, 68 acres. These conservation milestones were realized through collaborative efforts with the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR), the Town of Hadley, an interest held by USDA NRCS, and were facilitated with the assistance of the Franklin Land Trust.
Conservation stories like this are crucial in defending our agricultural resources against the encroachment of urban sprawl. What makes Hartsbrook Farm even more remarkable is its rich agricultural heritage.
The farm has been in the West family since 1810. Originally, it was a diversified operation with dairy, tobacco fields, orchards, and various crops. Arthur West can recall a time when horses were used on the family farm during his childhood.
“I think the workhorses left here in maybe 1946, 1947” says Arthur “we had two of them when I was seven or eight.”
Spanning over 300 acres, Hartsbrook Farm is situated west of South Maple Street and north of Bay Road, with Hampshire College as its eastern neighbor. Before the recent 68-acre APR, 224 acres of the farm were already protected under APR, and 86% of its soils are classified as nationally significant or state-important agricultural soils.
Hartsbrook Farm is now led primarily by brothers Brian and Keith West, preceded by parents Arthur and the late Joyce West, with the support of Arthur’s cousins William, Robert, and Phillip. This extended clan of Wests still help out around the farm and provide counsel to the
“We always told the kids, the farm can’t be sold. So you have to take it over. And we meant that, you know, you can’t do nothing else,” says Arthur.
Brian and Keith West represent the eighth generation of his family to farm this land.
Today, the farm raises registered Holsteins and primarily focuses on dairy production and the cultivation of crops necessary to sustain their milk-producing cows. Brian West returned to the farm after seven years working as an accountant for a company in Amherst, drawn back by the land that multiple generations of his family had put so much love and labor into. And in partnership with his brother Keith, he brought some innovations with him.
“Three years ago, we put in a robotic milker” says Arthur.
Despite initial skepticism about the technology, Arthur admits it has freed up his sons time to do other work on the farm rather than being tied to a milking schedule. But technology isn’t the only thing changing. Recent extreme weather events have caused challenges for the farm, negatively impacting the West’s feed crops.
“Mother Nature’s after us” says Arthur grimly. “This flood came through. And it has affected us. We’re losing half our corn crop for sileage.”
Arthur never sugarcoated the sometimes brutal realities of farming, his years spent waking up at 4 in the morning to milk the cows in the dark and cold while never making more than $1,000 a month in take home pay. Or the fact that, until the recent flood relief provided to farmers in Hadley, it seemed as if the local and state government had largely ignored the needs of farmers.
And yet, Arthur’s commitment, and that of his family, was unflagging. At one point I asked Arthur why the Wests kept farming, when it was so difficult, and provided so few financial rewards.
After a moment’s silence, Arthur leaned forward in his armchair and spoke slowly and with emphasis.
“Somebody has to be here,” he explained “I have to be here.”
Growing up in Arthur’s world meant understanding your identity and purpose from a young age. It meant knowing that your labor was integral if society were to continue functioning. To abandon one’s place in this intricate web of responsibilities was not only a betrayal of self but a dereliction of duty.
The land that Arthur’s family has cultivated for eight generations is a legacy, a heritage, and, like Arthur himself, it possesses a distinct purpose. To abandon this land would be to sever a vital connection to the past.