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    A bumper crop of discord over popular Plymouth farm

    Callie Lazzaro, 4, fed a goat at the petting zoo on the farm in Plymouth County operated by the sheriff’s department.
    Lane Turner/Globe Staff
    Callie Lazzaro, 4, fed a goat at the petting zoo on the farm in Plymouth County operated by the sheriff’s department.

    PLYMOUTH — As Janice King guided her granddaughters past pens of squealing piglets and bleating baby goats, she paused to give Plymouth County Sheriff Joseph McDonald a thumbs-up.

    “Keep up the fight,” King told McDonald, who’d been enjoying a quiet Wednesday morning on the county farm. “It’s a bunch of nonsense.”

    McDonald chuckled over the characterization of a squabble about his authority to continue running the popular farm, which includes a petting zoo and produce and flower operations maintained by inmates. Many of its fans fear it might temporarily close or even shut down permanently.

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    At the chicken coop, 10-year-old Lylah King gently expressed her opinion: She’d be sad if the petting zoo were to go away.

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    “I like coming here and looking at all the animals. I like feeding them,” she said, surrounded by cousins clutching pellets of food.

    In the sheriff’s eyes, he’ll come out on top in this spat among town, county, and state government officials who can’t quite seem to agree on who has control over the farm.

    But the Plymouth County commissioners believe that McDonald and the public shouldn’t even set foot on the property — not without a signed lease, proper insurance coverage, or back rent paid off. And Plymouth officials insist a conservation restriction gives the town oversight of the farm.

    In recent months, the dispute has morphed into a political power struggle with no clear outcome — except, maybe, a day in court at the expense of Plymouth taxpayers.

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    Bordering Route 3, the sprawling farm includes a handful of greenhouses poised to grow 30,000 chrysanthemums this season, pastoral fields teeming with zucchini and squash, and fallow land where almost 30 cows can roam. Near stables in the back of the property, retired racehorses nuzzle one another, lazily waiting to be saddled up by State Police for patrols.

    Plymouth - 07/17/19 - Sheriff's department employees and inmates work side by side on the farm harvesting squash. The legal status of the Plymouth County Farm is currently being disputed at various level of town, county, and state government. The sheriff who runs the farm has most recently been issued a notice to quit, which would close off the farm and petting zoo - popular tourist destinations - to the public. (Lane Turner/Globe Staff) Reporter: (Alison Kuznitz) Topic: (19farm)
    Lane Turner/Globe Staff
    Sheriff's department employees and inmates worked side by side on the farm harvesting squash.

    The petting zoo at the farm’s entrance, where newborn animals occasionally cough or sneeze to the delight of visitors, is considered a top tourist destination in the area — alongside the Mayflower, Plymouth Rock, and Plimoth Plantation.

    For decades, the farm has also doubled as a correctional rehabilitation program. Inmates from the Plymouth County Correctional Facility harvest thousands of pounds of fresh produce each year, McDonald said, that is distributed to nearby food pantries.

    Jack Cocio, the CEO of the South Shore Community Action Council, said the farm’s donations equate to 11,000 meals.

    “That’s pretty significant,” Cocio said in a phone interview. “We would probably go to the local farms and buy more to try to make sure the pantries don’t get shortchanged.”

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    Legally, the commissioners say, the sheriff’s department — which is funded by the state — is a squatter on land that belongs to the county. Commissioners want to allocate about one-third of the farm to an agricultural program for youths, potentially 4-H.

    “I am far less a squatter than they are an owner,” McDonald said during a tour of the farm. “They think they own this property, and I don’t think they do. I don’t think it’s a shutdown — it’s a shakedown.”

    McDonald called it a “money grab,” as proposed insurance quotes between the sheriff and the county commissioners differ by as much as $20,000. He’s also dubious of the timing, with the approach of Plymouth’s 400th anniversary celebration. The site could generate a strong profit from an influx of tourists, especially if vendors rent out space on the farm, McDonald suggested.

    The commissioners, however, say the argument isn’t about finances.

    “It’s a mess that the commissioners did not want to be involved in,” Shannon Resnick, the commissioners’ attorney, said in a phone interview. “If you think about this as a regular landlord-tenant relationship: Can you imagine what happens if a landlord has a tenant who hasn’t paid any rent for 10 years and gets to stay there for free?”

    In 2010, when the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Department was absorbed by the state, Resnick said, the commissioners technically became custodians of the farm.

    Still, McDonald continued with his usual operations, sans a lease and insurance. Yet with reports of some animals biting children and other injuries sustained on the property, the commissioners grew worried — especially when lease negotiations stalled, Resnick said.

    Plymouth - 07/17/19 - Belted Galloway cows leave the barn to graze outside. The legal status of the Plymouth County Farm is currently being disputed at various level of town, county, and state government. The sheriff who runs the farm has most recently been issued a notice to quit, which would close off the farm and petting zoo - popular tourist destinations - to the public. (Lane Turner/Globe Staff) Reporter: (Alison Kuznitz) Topic: (19farm)
    Lane Turner/Globe Staff
    Belted Galloway cows left the barn to graze outside.

    On Sept. 28, 2018, Resnick filed the commissioners’ first notice against the sheriff to cease and desist, a move aimed at halting public access and limiting liabilities until a lease agreement was reached. McDonald, who said he ignored the legal action, was served with another notice to cease and desist in late May this year — and a notice to vacate the farm by Aug. 9.

    If McDonald doesn’t comply, Resnick said the next step entails asking a judge to enforce the notices.

    “Although we’re taking a very unpopular stand, we’re doing what the law dictates us to do,” Commissioner Daniel Pallotta said. “You have two competing interests on a piece of land that could easily fit both parties.”

    Still, there’s another hiccup in this dispute.

    The Town of Plymouth previously paid the county $300,000 to establish a conservation restriction on the property, ensuring it would continue to be used as agricultural space — with or without the sheriff’s inmate program.

    To Plymouth Select Board member Betty Cavacco, that means the town is the “keeper” of the farm — and county commissioners can’t evict the sheriff. In the best-case scenario, Cavacco said, McDonald should be allowed to lease the land at $1 per year for the next 99 years.

    “Quite frankly, the relationship has always been somewhat contentious with county government,” Cavacco said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the commissioners try to pull a stunt.”

    She’s helping to organize a rally called “Save the Sheriff’s Farm” during the county commissioners’ meeting on July 25. Attendees are encouraged to hold up signs with slogans like “E I E I O the answer is NO.”

    Janice King’s daughter, Meg, who is Lylah’s mother, said closing down the farm would represent a “big loss” for the community.

    “It’s nice to get them outside and see the animals, instead of sitting inside on their iPads watching TV,” Meg King said as she gestured to her children.

    Alison Kuznitz can be reached at alison.kuznitz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AlisonKuznitz.