Land Trust deal preserves a slice of Smithfield's heritage forever

Land Trust deal preserves a slice of Smithfield's heritage forever

SMITHFIELD - The municipal Land Trust has bought development rights to nine acres of the venerable Capt. Elisha Steere Farm at 30 West Greenville Road, assuring that the land will continue to be worked as it has for nearly two centuries by seven generations of the same family.

The purchase, for $545,000, preserves an integral slice of the town's western agricultural corridor that still includes apple orchards and other open space, according to Land Trust Chairwoman Barbara Rich.

She said half the cost came from a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and half from Land Trust funds.

The agreement includes all of the 16-acre farm's land in Smithfield except for the house and a surrounding few acres, and also excluding several acres over the town line in Glocester.

Title to the property will remain under ownership of Jeffrey Steere Booker, 43, great-great-great-great grandson of militia Capt. Elisha Steere, who bought the house seven years after the Waterman Family built it in 1810.

Booker, who raises a variety of crops, said the agreement guarantees that the land will never fall to a developer and will give him the flexibility to devote his full energy and ideas to the property.

Previously, he had held a full-time job in the computer industry to make ends meet, but says he worried in recent years because it had become increasingly difficult to keep farm operations in the black.

"I'm only a farmer now," he said. "This was a life-changer."

He said the agreement will allow him to buy new equipment he has needed for a decade but couldn't afford, to expand the existing farm stand on the property, and that he has already installed a large greenhouse to extend his growing season.

Booker said he continues to contemplate a long-time family dream of rebuilding a large barn that burned during the 1938 hurricane.

Noting that family clothing, tools, and artifacts have been saved down the generations, he harbors the idea that perhaps with a future foundation grant the barn could become a museum celebrating Smithfield's heritage as an agricultural community, and his own family's part in it.

Among the carefully preserved bits of history, he said, are the buckskin britches that Capt. Elisha Steere wore into battle during the War of 1812.

The farm, whittled down in size over the years, is woven into the fabric of Smithfield's history, beginning when militiaman Steere and his wife, the former Esther Appleby, bought it five years after the war.

Steere's descendants have farmed there ever since. Booker bought the property, which in the 19th century covered more than 400 acres, from extended family in 1996 after growing up there and later going away to college. The family still owns 68 acres in the general area, and provides a lot of support for him on the farm, he said.

Booker raises a wide variety of crops, including an annual harvest from 8,000 tomato plants and 4,000 pepper plants. Among his other crops are cucumbers, corn, eggplant, squash, green beans, and pumpkins.

Booker supplies food to school cafeterias and local markets, with the aid of the nonprofit Farm Fresh R.I. distribution network, and also to an increasing number of restaurants that seek local produce.

The Steere farm, which in Smithfield and Glocester includes half a mile of Waterman Lake shorefront, in 2011 was designated a "heritage landscape" in a study identifying sites that significantly contribute to the character of their communities, but are in danger of disappearing without a measure of protection.

Under a development rights purchase, title remains with the owner, but the land must remain open in perpetuity.

According to the Land Trust's Rich, the price for development rights was determined using two separate professional appraisals, and reflects that several house lots could have been developed under the farm's R-80 Residential zoning.

The Land Trust's money to acquire property or development rights over the years has come from open-space bond issues, bequests, and a portion of any annual surpluses that accrue in the municipal budget.

Booker says that developing the land was not something he wanted to contemplate, because he feels that his heritage and his satisfaction come from "sitting on this tractor plowing this dirt. There's something about being connected to the ground - you get this sense of continuum."

And keeping the farm in the family also has additional new meaning, he says, since he recently became a father for the first time. He has a 4-month-old daughter with his fianc?©e, Shannon McLaurin, of North Smithfield.