NORTH HARWICH — There may not be much of a future for farming on Cape Cod, but teaching students about agriculture imparts skills valuable in other environmental fields that do have a future on the Cape.
That's one of the chief concepts behind a proposal to create an agricultural education center at the 33-acre town-owned Main Street cranberry bogs in association with Cape Cod Regional Technical High School.
The 20-year lease on the bogs is held by cranberry farmer Leo Cakounes and is scheduled to expire in November. With the COVID-19 pandemic and an absence of timely preparation leading into new lease proposals, selectmen last week voted to extend his lease for another year.
Cakounes told the conservation commission last Wednesday that he has been working with Cape Tech Superintendent Robert Sanborn for two years on the concept of using the bogs to develop an agricultural education center. Selectmen and Town Administrator Joseph Powers are involved in discussions, he added.
“Bob Sanborn is on board with it,” Cakounes told the commission.
There are three options facing the town for the future of the property, which contains10 acres of bogs and 21 acres of uplands, Cakounes said. One is to work with Cape Tech in the creation of an agricultural education center; a second is seeking proposals for a new 20-year lease; and the third is to do nothing and allow the bogs to return to nature.
“That’s not the right move,” Cakounes said. He has discussed with selectmen and the town administrator developing an intermunicipal agreement with Cape Tech in perpetuity for use of the property. The Cape Tech administration would establish a program for an agricultural center, which in turn would allow the school to submit an application to become an agricultural school; that would open up the possibility of agricultural funding.
Conservation commission member Ernie Crabtree thought it was an outstanding idea, but he was struggling with whether there is an agricultural future on Cape Cod. Cakounes said it's not his intention to teach students to make a living in agriculture.
“Why would you want to teach kids to grow cranberries?” he said. “There’s not much money in it. It’s not lucrative. You would use it to teach fundamentals: water and soil analysis, forestry maintenance, land management, veterinarian tech classes and raising livestock.” Those are all areas that teach skills valuable in careers like environmental management and property preservation, which do have a future on the Cape, he said. A farm is a good place to teach these fundamentals, he said.
Cakounes said he has talked to two veterinarians who have expressed interest in the programs, and he has had discussions with UMass Dartmouth about natural pollinator programs. The United States Department of Agriculture has shown interest, he said, adding that he believes through his contacts from serving on the state Farm Bureau he can draw support from the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.
“I’m impressed with all the effort and thinking you’ve put into this,” Crabtree said. “It’s an outstanding way to move forward.” He noted that when he was in college in Ohio, the biology field station on campus was the most popular program.
Commission member John Ketchum was also impressed. He recommended Cakounes bring in other stakeholders to talk about the Tech school role. Commission member James Donovan also said he’d like to see the Tech school using the site for agricultural purposes, which he agreed could be used to teach students about ecological restoration and landscaping. There is a strong demand for this knowledge on Cape Cod, he said.
The Cold Brook restoration project on former cranberry bogs along Bank Street could also serve as a learning tool, Cakounes said. Adjacent Flax Pond runs through the Main Street bogs and across to Thatcher’s bogs and out into the Herring River.
“Resource protection is the backbone of this project,” he said.
“The concept is very strong,” said commission member Mark Coleman, a farmer. “Introducing students to life skills would be huge.”
“I don’t think you want to let these bogs go away,” cranberry farmer Alan Hall said. “I’m going to add another third of an acre to my bogs. I have two sons doing it and they’re the eighth generation in Harwich doing it.”
The property is under the care and custody of the conservation commission, and Cakounes said the town’s agricultural commission also has the authority to control such a property. That committee has been inactive.
Commission members agreed they would like to see a more defined plan. Cakounes said the selectmen’s decision to extend his lease for an additional year will provide enough time for the plans to come together.
Sanborn was out of town and not available to comment.