Audit Found Confusion and Lax Oversight in the State’s Agricultural Preservation Program
BOSTON, MA —In the wake of a recent audit, State Auditor Suzanne M. Bump is urging the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) to increase transparency in decision-making and increase its monitoring of protected farmland within the state’s Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) program.
The Agricultural Preservation Restriction program was established by the legislature in 1977 as a key component of the Commonwealth’s farmland protection efforts. Under this voluntary program, the Commonwealth pays a farmer the difference between the actual market value of the land and the agricultural value in exchange for a commitment to keep the uses of and activities on the property agriculturally focused. The agreement stipulates that future construction or excavation on the land must be approved by MDAR. It also spells out a process a farmer must follow when he or she wants to sell the land. As of June 30, 2017, MDAR had entered into 909 APR Program contracts in 13 of the 14 Massachusetts counties. APR Program farmland accounts for approximately 14 percent of total farm acreage in the Commonwealth.
Bump’s audit found that a number of participants in the APR program did not understand its requirements, were not sufficiently monitored for compliance with those requirements, and were unsure of the criteria used by the program’s leadership when making decisions regarding the sale and approved uses of APR land.
When conducting the audit, Bump’s staff visited 60 of the farms in the APR Program. While many of the farms that were visited expressed satisfaction with the program, several relayed stories related to difficulties they encountered with the program.
“The processes at the agency are very opaque and lack consistency, making it hard for farmers to enter the program, navigate within it, and pass it on to another farmer. Many of the program’s policies have been adopted without public input, and their decision-making is often unexplained,” Bump said. “While on the whole, participants are satisfied with the APR program, it is clear that the Department of Agricultural Resources must do more to ensure it adapts to meet the needs of modern farmers, including accommodating agritourism and other revenue producing opportunities.”
Additionally, the audit notes that due to slow application processing by MDAR, the state frequently missed out on the opportunity to have the federal government cover 50 percent of the purchase cost of APR farmland, resulting in more than $3 million in lost federal funding for the program during the audit period.
In the audit, Bump calls on MDAR to take several steps to make the APR program work better, including:
· Conducting annual monitoring of APR land to ensure it is being used for approved purposes;
· Expanding education opportunities, including a formal training component, to ensure participants know about the program’s requirements;
· Providing guidelines on how certain program decisions are made to provide greater transparency and predictability in the process;
· Allowing farmers greater flexibility to appeal or withdraw from decisions related to APR Program farmland; and
· Working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service to ensure the state receives available federal funds for the purchase of farmland.
“We appreciated the amount of work the auditor put into this effort,” said Mark Amato, President of The Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation and manager of Verrill Farm. “These findings closely mirror the many concerns that have been raised by our members, as well as the results of a survey we conducted of APR landowners last year. We look forward to working with the Department of Agricultural Resources to implement these recommendations.”
On Thursday, August 23rd, Bump will visit Westport River Vineyard, which is an APR participant, to learn more about its owners’ experiences with the program. She will be joined by Sen. Michael Rodrigues and Rep. Paul Schmid, both of Westport. Rodrigues has introduced legislation to reform the APR program.
The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, which administers the APR program, is an agency within the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. It is overseen by the Board of Agriculture, which consists of 13-members appointed by the Governor to represent diverse agricultural operations within the Commonwealth. It has approximately 82 employees, and had an approximately annual operating budget of $32 million during the audit period.
About the Office of the State Auditor
The Office of the State Auditor conducts performance audits of state government’s programs, departments, agencies, authorities, contracts, and vendors. With its reports, the OSA issues recommendations to improve accountability, efficiency, and transparency. The OSA has identified approximately $1.3 billion in unallowable, questionable, or potentially fraudulent spending and saving opportunities for the Commonwealth since 2011. Last year, auditees report implementation of 92 percent of the OSA’s audit recommendations. The office received the Einhorn-Gary Award for its success furthering government accountability.