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Clear-cut tragedy; Making hay out of apple orchard.

Byline: Gerard F. Russell

CHARLTON - An effort to preserve a piece of the town's agricultural history has failed.

Apple trees at the once thriving Fay Mountain Farm orchard are being cut down this week and fed to a wood chipper.

The town bought the 64-acre Fay Mountain Farm off Stafford Street in 2002 for $450,000 with the help of a state agricultural conservation grant. The deal between the town and state required the town to care for the orchard and produce an annual crop.

The state Division of Conservation Services awarded the town $250,000 toward the purchase. Another $200,000 was awarded by the Masonic Home through the Massachusetts Department of Food and Agriculture.

The farm was once the childhood home of Dr. William T.G. Morton, a dentist who in 1846 discovered the anesthetic properties of ether. The farmhouse, though, was not part of the town's purchase.

The Gilmore family was the most recent owner of the farm, from the 1970s until Ruth Gilmore sold the property to the town in 2002.

When the town needed someone to run the orchard, the town accepted a proposal from Richard Gilmore, Ruth's son, and his wife, Donna. They signed a contract with the town to run the farm and produce a crop, but they walked away from the farm last year. The town has been unable to find someone else to take on the task. The couple operated the farm with a community garden for four years, but they did not produce an apple crop.

Karen Gauvin, the town's conservation administrator with the Conservation Commission, said the Gilmores could not get the trees to produce fruit.

"From what I understand, they were not able to get the trees back to the apple status to produce. Too much time had gone by," she said.

"People thought the trees were not as far gone as they were until the town took it over. The trees had not been maintained," she said.

After the Gilmores left, the commission sought other proposals for operators without success.

As a result, apple trees are being cut down and land will be cleared to grow grass for the production of hay, Ms. Gauvin said.

"We need to produce a crop. The apples were not producing," she said.

Ms. Gauvin said she did not know how many trees would be cut, or how many acres would be cleared, to grow hay. The state Department of Agricultural Resources will determine how much of the property will be farmed, she said.

"I believe they are taking down enough trees to satisfy the production of hay," she said, referring other questions to commission members.

A call to Thomas O'Malley, commission chairman, was not returned. Calls to other members also were not returned.

The commission voted Feb. 6 to turn the apple orchard into hay fields, according to a letter from Thomas O'Malley, Conservation Commission chairman.

"In 2007 an Agricultural Preservation Restriction representative (Michele Padula) met with local officials and informed them that it was imperative that Fay Mountain Farm be farmed, even if it meant removing the abandoned apple trees and seeding the land for a hay crop," Mr. O'Malley said in a letter to Gerry Foskett, highway superintendent.

Highway Department workers are cutting the trees.

Before the commission determined what to do with the farm, it sought advice from the state and Keith R. Arsenault, town treasurer, who also owns the 14-acre Ragged Hill Orchard in West Brookfield.

"The trees had been let go too long. It would probably be close to impossible, and certainly not profitable, to bring them back," Mr. Arsenault said.

He added that the "best thing for the property was to bring it back to a hay field" because of some of the diseased trees.

He said the trees had not had

a good nutritional program or pruning, and mice had chewed at the root systems. Also, invasive vines had wrapped themselves around the trees

"They should take everything down," he said.

Mr. Arsenault said it was not good to allow diseased trees to remain there.

Town Administrator Robin Craver said the state preservation and agricultural restrictions on the property require the town to farm about 22 acres. Taking the apple trees down was not something the town wanted to do, she said.

"There were lengthy discussions. Unfortunately, the town is not in the position to maintain the trees adequately," she said.

Mrs. Craver explained, "This was not done lightly. I think individual members agonized over this."

The state approved the town's decision.

Robert O'Connor, state director of land and forest conservation, said, "We met with the town and determined the apple trees were too far gone to save and had not been maintained for so long."

Former Selectman Tammra Russell, who led the effort to buy the farm in 2001, said yesterday she was disappointed at the news.

"That is pretty sad," Mrs. Russell said.

Mrs. Russell, who moved to Tennessee a couple of years ago, said, "I am saddened that the town was unable to either get new farmers to come in and continue the orchard or establish some sort of community garden that could continue the operation and produce local produce, especially in a time of economic hardship."

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The site: The town bought the 64-acre Fay Mountain Farm off Stafford Street in Charlton in 2002 for $450,000 with the help of a state agricultural conservation grant.

The history: The farm was once the childhood home of Dr. William T.G. Morton, a dentist who in 1846 discovered the anesthetic properties of ether.

The conclusion: The commission voted Feb. 6 to turn the apple orchard into hay fields.

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ART: PHOTOS, MAP

CUTLINE: (1) Workers from the Charlton Highway Department clear apple trees yesterday at Fay Mountain Farm. (2) Fay Mountain Farm as seen in this 2006 file photo. (3) Blueberries grow behind the pond at Fay Mountain Farm in Charlton, part of a town public land trust, in this 2005 file photo. (MAP) Fay Mountain Farm Orchard

PHOTOG: (1, 2) T&G Staff/DAN GOULD (3) T&G File Photo/JIM COLLINS (MAP) T&G Staff
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:May 8, 2008
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