ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Rhode Island is about to offer bargain prices on real estate. Of course there is a catch, as Stephanie Leydon from member station WGBH reports, this deal is only for farmers.
STEPHANIE LEYDON, BYLINE: Ben Torpey's kneeling in the dirt, putting the first of what will be his organic lettuce crop in the ground, one bright green seedling after another. Customers in nearby Providence, R.I., are already waiting for his first harvest. The local food movement here is thriving. And Torpey, a guy who grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey, is typical of a new generation of farmers.
BEN TORPEY: Like a lot of farmers around here, I did not grow up farming, but, yeah, I just started working on farms when I was in college. And then that's what I've been doing ever since.
LEYDON: Torpey's worked this land for the past 6 years, but he doesn't own it. Along with a handful of other farmers, he leases land at a state-owned farm. It was created as a kind of incubator, a place where new farmers could launch their businesses before buying their own farms. But...
TORPEY: I haven't even looked for land to buy because it doesn't feel like a realistic possibility for me. The same thing that I'm looking for, a developer is looking for the - to buy the same field. So what I see as enough land to grow food for 130 families a developer would see as enough land to build eight McMansions.
LEYDON: The booming real estate market has driven up prices to the point where Rhode Island now has the most expensive farmland in the country. In response, the state is launching a first-of-its-kind program to buy farms at their appraised value and then sell them at an agricultural rate - about 20 percent of the market value.
KEN AYERS: We want these entrepreneurs, these spirited people who want to build an agricultural business in Rhode Island to stay here and not to have to leave to find cheaper land in some other state.
LEYDON: That's Ken Ayers, Rhode Island's agriculture chief. He says keeping farmers in Rhode Island is part of an ambitious, long-term goal. By 2060, the state wants to produce half of its own food.
AYERS: Because we are concerned about the food system in general in this country. Rhode Island probably only produces 1 to 2 percent of its own food. New England in general probably only produces about 10 percent of its own food. And we're at the end of a pipeline of food that travels to us from other parts of the U.S. and other parts of the world.
LEYDON: The idea is to make fresh food available more cheaply to more people and guard against a future in which energy to transport food or food itself could become scarce.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY WHIRRING)
LEYDON: But the program to offer farmers land at a deep discount does have strings attached. The land can be used only for farming. The owners couldn't, for instance, build houses on it or sell any of it to a developer. And that, say critics like State Representative Sherry Roberts, could leave farmers who run into financial trouble in a bind.
SHERRY ROBERTS: It's not fully their property to do whatever they want. They cannot later go and separate that and build a house of their own and sell it and make more money.
LEYDON: But Ben Torpey says if he's chosen for this program and can buy his own land, he'll happily give up the rights to develop it. He says what he really wants is the security of knowing the land he cultivates will remain his from one season to the next. For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Leydon in Cranston, R.I.
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