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Valley farms show US Department of Agriculture undersecretary local food systems at work



Monday, September 08, 2014
HATFIELD — While walking between dump trucks brimming with potatoes during a tour of Szawlowski Potato Farms Tuesday afternoon, an undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture brought up the importance of taking care of “the 1 percent.”

But Edward Avalos, the undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, was not talking about the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. He was referring to the fraction of the country’s population that are farmers and ranchers.

“They produce over 83 percent of the food you and I eat every day,” he said. “That 1 percent supports the other 99 percent, so it has to be a priority for the administration, for the USDA, to keep producers in business.”

The visit by Avalos to the potato farm — the biggest of its kind in New England, according to the farmers — was part of a three-day tour of farms and food-related businesses across the state.

The USDA has identified strengthening local and regional food systems as an important part of rural economic development and pledged to invest $78 million in the cause, so the tour stops included food production, processing and distribution centers as well as farms.

Accompanying Avalos at the Hatfield farm and some other western Massachusetts stops were U.S. Rep. James McGovern, D-Worcester, state Rep. John Scibak, D-South Hadley, and others including representatives of the state Department of Agricultural Resources.

The tour Tuesday included stops at All Things Local in Amherst, Mapleline Farm and Valley Malt in Hadley, River Valley Co-op in Northampton, the Franklin County CDC Food Processing Center in Greenfield, and Four Star Farms in Northfield.

Local food systems are already important parts of the economy in the Pioneer Valley, where most producers have smaller operations compared to other parts of the country. Farmers are already finding the best ways to sell locally, Avalos said.

“I’ve seen a lot of creativity and a lot of innovation,” he said of his stops Tuesday morning at Valley Malt, which prepares malted grain for brewers and distillers, and Mapleline Farm, which bottles and sells its own milk.

“It’s absolutely critical to allow smaller producers to be successful in developing specialty and niche markets,” he said. “Because when there’s a farmer that can’t make a living off the land he owns or the land he rents, the rural community suffers.”

Avalos said that the USDA’s new Local and Regional Food Production Program, paid for through $78 million in the 2014 Farm Bill, will be a boon to smaller farmers and related businesses.

“It’s $15 million in grant money to address distribution, storage, transportation, and other market-specific challenges for both producers and transporters,” he said. Another $15 million will support marketing for direct-selling venues like farmers markets.

Selling spuds

Shelley Szawlowski, who handles sales and other tasks for Szawlowski Potato Farms, led the group through coolers and packing rooms Tuesday, explaining how potatoes are harvested, washed, cooled, bagged and shipped out. Throughout the tour, various other members of the family dropped in to talk with their visitors about everything from how they track the potatoes they sell, to the favorable weather that means a successful growing season.

“Potatoes love cool night temperatures and sunny, warm days,” Shelley Szawlowski said in a large cold storage facility packed with pallets of potatoes. “The cool nights really give them their weight.”

The farm usually harvests potatoes from early July to the end of October on 3,000 acres of owned and rented land in Hampshire and Franklin counties. When the Szawlowskis are not overwhelmed with processing and shipping their own potatoes, the family processes and distributes spuds for farmers from around the region.

While the Szawlowskis own one of the bigger farms in the state, McGovern said that is still a family affair after over 100 years. “One of the unique things we’ve seen today is that these are all family-run farms,” he said.

He said the tour is an opportunity to learn about the area’s farming industry not only for the undersecretary, but for himself. “This is a fairly new part of my district,” said McGovern, a member of the House Agriculture Committee.

“I’m on it primarily to protect (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and other nutrition programs, but I’m also becoming a big advocate of the small and medium farmers,” he said. “They could be a bigger part of the economy.”

Avalos, who hails from New Mexico, said the smaller farms he is seeing in Massachusetts this week remind him of some from his home state.

“In New Mexico there are a number of large farms and also small farms, especially in northern New Mexico,” he said. “They’re very similar to this part of the country. A lot of the challenges the smaller producers have are the same.” Those include higher overhead and production costs and being undercut price-wise by their larger competitors.

Many farms in both areas are also family-owned and multi-generational, like the Szawlowski Potato Farms. “There is a lot of family pride in these family operations,” he said. “There’s a big emphasis on keeping it in the family.”

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.