Next steps in supporting small family farms in Massachusetts

How Now Local Ag?

by Scott J. Soares

I recently came across an old brochure on my desk that touted the “Top 10 Reasons Why to Buy Local.” From “fresher” to “helps preserve open space,” the reasons make as much sense now as when they were first published in the 1990s. But in reading it, I was struck by just how extraordinarily far Massachusetts has come in recognizing the “why” and is now pursuing the “how.” In fact, with continued expansion of direct marketing opportunities that have come primarily in response to consumer demand, and “local” becoming the primary driver for increased sales opportunities, “Why not buy local?” has become a more common refrain. This shift is a significant one in that valuable people-time and resources once spent to educate consumers about the myriad benefits associated with buying fresh, locally grown foods are now being better spent: creating infrastructures such as farmers’ markets and CSAs that facilitate access to locally grown food, strengthening partnerships between folks vested in a vibrant agricultural future, and expanding entrepreneurial business opportunities that provide both products and a sense of community to customers.

The concept of building or reestablishing infrastructure to help connect farmers to different kinds of consumers (e.g. culinary enthusiasts, restaurants, schools, etc.) and vice versa sounds simple enough. But there are a multitude of financial, logistical, and regulatory hurdles that can challenge the creation of efficient, cost-effective, and quality-assured geographical access points (e.g. farmers’ markets and farm stands).

Recognizing these hurdles is the obvious first step in overcoming them, and we’re making remarkable headway. Our success is based on an unprecedented level of cooperation amongst diverse and sometimes unexpected collaborators. We are seeing truly ground-breaking partnership building on the local, state, and federal level. A recent example is the award of 22 grants to improve access to fresh fruits and produce by low-income residents while also increasing economic opportunities for farmers through the expansion of Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) systems at farmers’ markets. This initiative included the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR), the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA), Wholesome Wave, Harvard Pilgrim Health, and the Federation of Massachusetts Farmers Markets. Additionally, we are seeing great collaborative relationships evolve or strengthen with the Department of Public Health (DPH), the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism (MOTT) in our efforts to identify common ground where barriers to sustainable agriculture can be mitigated.

Great inroads are also being made with farm-to-school and institutional buying initiatives. The Worcester school district, for example, stands as a great example of a community that has chosen to nix the greasy French fries in favor of locally grown potatoes that are more healthfully prepared. Are there logistical hindrances to getting this product to the school? You bet. But I am confident that Worcester’s pioneering efforts will serve as a beacon to other communities in ensuring that good eating habits are an integral part of every school system’s operational plans. This is true too for hospitals, nursing homes, and more.

One great example of infrastructure building specific to Martha’s Vineyard is the Mobile Poultry Processing Trailer Pilot Program. Working with DPH, the local boards of health, DEP, MDAR, and the community, this highly successful program has provided for a reported expansion from processing 200 chickens to an expected 5,000 this year. Not only has this effort increased access opportunities for a fresh and safe supply of locally produced poultry, but it has contributed to increased economic development and employment opportunities, and has laid the foundation for continued collaborative opportunities between the agricultural community and local and state agencies.

It goes without saying that as part of this process, renewable energy and energy e ciency are hugely important to our farmers’ ability to lower operating costs, embed environmentally sound management practices, and provide competitively priced products to consumers. As of press time, MDAR is currently reviewing $2,000,000 in grant proposals that will help fund photovoltaic solar panels, wind turbines, anaerobic digesters, and more. Some projects already in the ground are reaping tangible annual savings of over 400,000 kWh electric, 14,500 gallons of fuel oil, 10,380 therms of natural gas, and 6,000 gallons of propane. This will reduce farm emissions by over 300 tons of CO2.

Finally, there are many ways to build infrastructure for farmers, including the Information Technology kind. Recently as part of MDAR’s new outreach efforts to improve accessibility to locally grown food, our Department launched a MassGrown & Fresher website at www.mass.gov/massgrown. This “gateway to local” is one that no longer seeks so much to expound upon the merits of locally grown, but instead helps visitors get to it faster, or as the page states, “just one click away” from all that Massachusetts agriculture has to o er. It features an “Agri-Google” mapping function to find farmers’ markets, Pick-Your-Own farms, agricultural fairs, wineries,
agri-tourism destinations, and much more. Once a month we spotlight a person or place making a difference to agriculture in Massachusetts. I invite you to visit this new site, tell us what you think, and stay tuned for many great enhancements to come.

I am truly humbled by all of the wonderful people I have the chance to meet every day in my duties as Commissioner of Agricultural Resources. The commitment and passion to local sustainable agriculture that is out there is amazing. One day I hope that the next refrain for locally grown will no longer be “Why” (so ’90s), or ‘‘How” (so 2010), but perhaps “What.” Like what’s (locally grown) cooking for dinner?