Editorial: A day of lobbying, and tasting, seeks to advance farm economy



Last modified: Monday, March 30, 2015

When hungry lawmakers browse the tables at Agriculture Day in Boston today, one of the cheeses they’ll sample hails from Grace Hill Farm in Cummington. It’s there on Potash Hill Road that Max and Amy Breiteneicher create Hilltown Blue by hand, using milk from grass-fed cows.

On Ag Day, farm groups fill tables in the Great Hall and Grand Staircase area inside the Statehouse with tempting tastes created in Massachusetts. They then use the fellow feeling of a shared meal to talk about important issues. To be sure, it’s better for lawmakers to snack on these blues than to have farmers singing them.

Because Boston sits in the most urban part of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation rolls out a campaign once a year to remind people with influence — and the power of the purse — that agriculture is an important part of the economy, especially in western Massachusetts. And that it needs help. Though farming’s star has risen, it remains a fight, especially in a year of budget cuts, to win legislative support.

Farm groups will be pressing during Ag Day for continued support for Agricultural Preservation Restriction projects. That well-known state program has protected over 71,000 acres of land from development. Today, 52 projects await funding.

Three of the top five issues farmers and their allies will seek support for today are addressed in bills sponsored by state Rep. Stephen Kulik.

One, HB 711, would bring Massachusetts up to speed with neighboring states by improving farm access to slaughterhouses. Despite a robust demand for locally produced meat, there are not enough processing plants, which has resulted in a 13 percent decrease in livestock numbers over five years.

Another Kulik measure, HB 713, would clarify rules on the well-being of livestock, enabling local meat producers to tell their customers their products are humanely produced. The third, HB 712, seeks to keep farms viable by protecting them from local health board policies that might restrict or undermine farming ventures.

Farm groups will also back a program that has already justified itself — but needs continuing advocacy. The Buy Local movement is alive and well in Massachusetts, championed in the Valley by CISA, Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture.

For the fiscal year that ends June 30, nine Buy Local groups are sharing $300,000 in state funding. That backing rose $100,000 from the year before, but had to be shared more widely. Farm groups will be asking the legislature to include $300,000 again for the budget year that starts July 1. It is not included in the governor’s budget.

As a result of these programs, Massachusetts ranks third in the nation for farm sales direct to consumers. In Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden counties, the value of direct farm sales climbed from $4.5 million in 2002 to around $10.4 million today, according to a report by CISA. In all, 2,161 farms in the three counties produce $128 million worth of products.

CISA’s “Be a Local Hero, Buy Locally Grown” campaign works for farms and it works for consumers. Money spent locally works locally. CISA calculates that if every state household spent another $5 a month on locally produced food, that would generate $71.5 million in local income and create 1,286 jobs.

With its relatively minor investment in Buy Local efforts, the state harvests a healthy return.




 


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