CORRECTED MEETING LOCATION: Four-year study on food production, consumption heads to Northampton Agricultural Commission

Last modified: Saturday, December 14, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — The Agricultural Commission will begin taking a comprehensive look at how food is produced, distributed, sold and purchased in the city Wednesday night with the goal of developing plans to strengthen local food production.

The Keep Farming Northampton project of the Agricultural Commission aims to develop a plan to strengthen local agriculture using data culled from four extensive surveys undertaken over the past four years, said Frances Volkmann, a former city councilor who is leading the project.

“We think farming and local food can become a much stronger economically than they are now, and you’d be surprised at how strong it is now,” Volkmann said.

The commission meeting is held in the community room at JFK Middle School at 7 p.m., with the Keep Farming Northampton discussion scheduled for 7:30.

The report will detail the results of surveys in four main areas: residents, farmers, restaurants and institutions.

Volkmann said the study surveyed 550 residents from nearly every ward in the city about where they get food, how they feel about it and whether they are interested in buying from local sources.

The survey found that a majority of people are committed to local food and to the preservation of farms. Some 68 percent of survey-takers said they buy locally grown food every week from supermarkets, farmers markets, food cooperatives and farm stands. Because 75 percent of respondents report shopping at large supermarkets, one way to increase local food purchasing is to market more local food to supermarkets, the report states.

All of the city’s 20-plus farmers were also interviewed for a second survey that aimed to provide a holistic picture of the agricultural economy in the city, including how many farms there are, where food is grown and sold and other related information.

Based on land records, about 11 percent of Northampton land is farmed, with nearly 45 percent of that land in the Meadows section of the city. Field crops such as hay and corn are the main products of city farmland, though farmers also grow soybeans, vegetables, fruit, flowers and bedding plants.

The survey found that 60 percent of farmers sell at least half of what they produce locally. Almost a third of the respondents sell some or all of their products at farm stands, and a third sell products at local farmers markets. However, 40 percent reported that they sell or use most of their produce outside Northampton.

About 40 restaurant owners who completed a third survey were asked where they get the food they serve, if they are interested in buying more local food as part of their business and whether customers have expressed interest in local food options.

More than 90 percent said their customers are sometimes or almost always interested in where the food they serve comes from and that local food is important to them. The same percentage of owners believed that serving local food is good for business, though only 50 percent of respondents said they were good at marketing local food to customers.

Though most of the restaurateurs indicated a desire to purchase more locally grown or produced food, the survey found that better communication is needed to help them understand what foods are available when, at what cost and in what quantity. One recommendation may be to implement an electronic Food Hub, a system for coordinating deliveries from various farms and producers to restaurants, along with preseason meetings between farmers and buyers, the report suggested.

Similar questions were asked of nonprofits and other institutions for the final survey.

“We wanted to get a sense of the entire local food system in Northampton,” Volkmann said.

Smith College students from two college programs helped conduct the surveys, along with local volunteers. The college’s Center for the Environment, Ecological Design and Sustainability compiled the results of the surveys into a larger report that will put the information in a regional context. One proposal Volkmann said will be part of the final package includes creation of a year-round farmers market downtown. Other recommendations will be outlined at the meeting as part of the larger report.

Volunteers worked with the nonprofit Glynwood Institute of Cold Spring, N.Y., which created a template for gathering and analyzing information about community agriculture and consumption. The organization has facilitated a similar project in Great Barrington.


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