Protecting Black Kettle Farm

Laura Neale first fell in love with Maine in 1996, when she moved from the outskirts of New York City to Waterville for college. As she drove past farm fields, open spaces, and green woods for the first time, she felt at peace. After graduating from Colby College, Laura left the state. But the precious memories of Maine’s nature and culture brought her back. And soon, she found herself cultivating farm fields of her own.

Sadly, Maine’s farming landscape has changed profoundly over the last decades. In Lyman, where Laura owns and runs Black Kettle Farm, construction sites and rows of houses have too often replaced open space and trees.

Tired of feeling frustrated by witnessing these changes, Laura took matters into her own hands. With help from the Legal Food Hub, she secured a conservation easement that will permanently protect her farmland from development.

Connecting with People Through Food

As a college student, Laura admits she had a tough time connecting to academics. She yearned to be outside, surrounded by nature and engaging with the world around her. Laura found an opportunity to work at a local vegetable farm through an apprenticeship program with The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. The work, the gadgets, and the rewards of farming filled Laura with joy.

Upon graduating college, Laura moved across the country, traveled the world, and continued to immerse herself in farming. Laura discovered she could connect her values and love for nature to a career. Laura’s connections to the northeast eventually led her back to Maine. Here, she pursued a new dream, to become a farm owner. In 2010, her dream became a reality.

Today, Laura owns Black Kettle Farm, an organic vegetable farm in Lyman, Maine, a town of about 4,300 people a half-hour from Portland. These 12 acres of land, located in one of the state’s most densely developed regions, have a remarkable impact on the community. Laura has made it a point to develop a relationship with her customers, from local chefs to neighbors. To her, it’s critical that people get to know where their food comes from and who grows it.

Laura also runs a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program where, in exchange for a fee or work on the farm, people receive fresh produce for a full season. This program has gained popularity among locals, some of whom have participated for over ten years.

Despite the success of her small farm, recently, Laura had begun to fear for its future and the community relying on it. She had seen too many farms plowed under for housing developments.

Pressures from housing and industrial development are not unique to her community. The American Farmland Trust estimates that, between 2001 and 2016, over 27,000 acres of Maine’s agricultural land were converted to industrial and housing development. That’s about 5.2% of the available agricultural land in the state. And these pressures extend well beyond Maine. Across New England, over 105,000 acres of agricultural land were threatened or lost to development during that same period. It’s a disheartening loss for a region that prides itself on its rural character and agrarian traditions.

Turning Frustration into Action

After years of feeling frustrated watching development overtake fertile farmland, Laura decided to take action. She chose to protect her farm permanently through a conservation easement. That legal tool would ensure Black Kettle remained open space – and could be farmed even by a future owner.

Chris Gordon helped Laura navigate the complex path to protect Black Kettle Farm from development permanently.

Laura reached out to the Maine Farmland Trust to get the easement started. But the legal process and paperwork were dense and difficult to navigate. She wanted to have clarity and ownership of the process as she made the irreversible decision to transfer some rights to her farm to a conservation trust. She needed an attorney. “I asked a couple of friends who had done similar projects, and one of them suggested the Legal Food Hub.

CLF’s Legal Food Hub, which operates in every New England state, matches farmers with volunteer attorneys who can help them navigate complex legal issues. These free legal services are invaluable for farmers like Laura, who otherwise would not be able to afford costly legal fees.

The Hub connected Laura to Chris Gordon, a first-time volunteer attorney from the law firm Perkins Thompson, who helped her review and negotiate the terms of the easement. “His expertise in real estate, his training, and his awareness of legal language made a huge difference,” says Laura.

Chris advocated for her at every step of the process and made sure she felt comfortable with all details of the easement. Putting an easement on your property is a substantial undertaking that should not be undertaken lightly, Chris says. “It was very important that [Laura] knew of the impacts and limitations that would come with the easement.”

A life-changing decision with a long-lasting impact

In the spring of 2021, after a year of dealing with arduous legal paperwork, the conservation easement on Black Kettle Farm became official. Laura feels proud and empowered by her ability to complete this process for her farm. But more than anything, she feels happy that there will be a space for other people to farm after her. “I have my small business here. I live here. This place is my world. And even when I move on and I’m forgotten, this farm will continue.”