Hemp, rail and soil touted to help Mass. farmers with climate change

  • Mass.gov  Mass.gov

  • Lorraine Herbert, co-owner of Urban Grown Inc. in Hatfield, harvests hemp plants Oct. 9 with Isaat Rosareo, an employee. FILE PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

For the Gazette
Published: 11/14/2019 10:02:57 PM

Although some state programs to update farming practices are protective against climate change, advocates and legislators in Massachusetts say the state should be taking action to help rural areas — home to most of the state’s farming — deal with climate challenges.

Possible solutions? Hemp and CBD oil, high-speed rail, and improved soil quality.

“The concern right now is as the intensity of storms increases, the recovery efforts become more expensive, the storms themselves become more devastating,” said Rep. Paul W. Mark, D-Peru, in response to a question about the effects of climate change on rural areas. “When Hurricane Irene hit in 2011, that was a major problem. ... The threat of that happening more and more often provides a real economic uncertainty.”


One solution to the economic uncertainty: hemp. Sens. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, as well as Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, have been advocating for letting farmers grow hemp as a cash crop on Agricultural Preservation Restriction land.

“Hemp is going to help farmers stay in business, and farmers staying in business is good for climate change,” Comerford said.

The cultivation of hemp — a close cousin of marijuana that lacks appreciable amounts of THC, the chemical responsible for marijuana’s “high” — is in a kind of limbo in Massachusetts. Growing it is prohibited on agricultural preservation land, and it is not an approved crop qualifying farmers for lower taxes on their farmland. Although both the House and Senate have considered measures lifting these restrictions, no unified bill has cleared both houses of the Legislature and been signed by the governor.

Complicating the commercial picture for hemp farming is a policy statement from the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources asserting its authority over the hemp marketplace, and notably cannabidiol or CBD, an extract used to treat a variety of conditions. CBD can be extracted from either hemp or marijuana.

After noting the the Department of Health has issued policy guidance recommending that “manufacture or sale of any food or other consumable products containing CBD” be prohibited, the MDAR declares that “hemp-derived products” “must be in compliance with applicable DPH guidance.”

Explicitly prohibited under the policy are “any food product containing CBD,” “any product containing CBD derived from hemp that makes therapeutic/medicinal claims,” and “animal feed that contains any hemp products.” Hemp seed, clothing and building materials made from hemp are among the products allowed.

Interestingly, edible and topical CBD products derived from marijuana are widely available in Massachusetts because they are under the purview of the Cannabis Control Commission, which has authority over the legal marijuana trade.

State Sen. Anne Gobi, D-Spencer, a co-chair of the Massachusetts Food System Caucus, was highly critical of the MDAR statement and Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration.

“A year ago, our farmers were being told go ahead, grow hemp, you’ll be part of this growing industry. Right now, the Baker administration has told farmers you can’t grow the hemp for CBD,” she said. “It’s not being regulated, coming in from out of state — people are … spending good money to buy these products. It’s not being sold by Massachusetts companies and it’s not being sold by Massachusetts farmers.”

Gobi is also concerned about the financial impact of a catastrophic weather event and is trying to shore up insurance for farmers.

“There’s a bill that I have filed in the past that would set up some sort of system for farmers that have these kind of catastrophic losses,” she said. “Unfortunately for a lot of these small farms, the insurance can be cost-prohibitive to buy.”

However, Gobi said legislators have not yet been able to find a dedicated funding source.

“Farmers are at the front lines of climate change,” said Comerford, another co-chair of the Food System Caucus. “We see that every year we have periods of increasing heat or increasing rain or periods of increasing drought. It’s cyclical and it’s volatile and it’s really hard to plan if you’re a farmer. We have to help mitigate the impacts of climate change by having some resiliency money for farmers.”

Said Comerford: “We’ve been front-burnering education and I’m hopeful that we can front-burner climate now.”


If climate change gets to the front burner, political support will play a role in what can get passed.

Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, a third co-chair of the food system caucus, said farmers can be helped either directly or by helping the environment as a whole, because a failure to reduce greenhouse gases makes the climate more difficult for farmers to deal with.

“Especially in western Massachusetts, our farms tend to be family owned — they’re local, they’re smaller scale. The challenge is they often have less of a financial cushion if there is a weather event,” Lesser said. “We need to increase our adaptation support. But we also need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect the environment and prevent climate change from happening in the first place — if we marshal the resources and political will to do it.”

This reframing of environmental issues such as transportation as agricultural issues reflects a recommendation made in the state’s recently released rural policy plan to link state carbon policy with rural issues and assets.

Lesser believes high-speed rail connecting Boston, Springfield and Pittsfield will take thousands of cars off the road, which will help farmers, noting that 40 percent of all Massachusetts greenhouse emissions come from transportation. The rail plan is in a feasibility study right now, which he said should be completed by early next year.


One other piece of the puzzle involves soil issues, according to Barre farmer Julie Rawson, executive director of Northeast Organic Farming Association Mass. Comerford and Rep. Paul A. Schmid, III, D-Westport, have filed both filed bills to create incentives for healthy soil practices.

Rawson is happy with state and federal programs promoting increased carbon sequestration and no-till practices, along with building soil structure, which she says will mitigate the impact of storms.

“People need to understand that those kinds of actions that we take are really important to our salvation as a race of people. I think the globe will take care of itself and if it needs to kick us all out and kill us all, it will,” she said. “If we really want to survive as a species we can do so much by what we put in our mouth three times a day.”

Rawson grew up on a farm in Illinois in the 1950s, and became a community organizer in Boston after college. When she had kids, she wanted them to grow up on a farm like she did, so she moved to Barre in the early 1980s, where she and her husband, Jack, own ​​​​​​​Many Hands Organic Farm. Over the course of her life, she has noticed changes in the climate.

“What I’ve noticed is erratic quality of rain. We had that crazy storm (recently) where a lot of people lost power. Last year, however, there were like six to 10 weeks of solid rain. Too much rain every day,” she said. “I know a lot of farmers who are underwater and really had to give up on some of their crops. Farmers have always complained about the weather, but challenges are greater than they used to be.”

She believes there is a clear solution in building soil and in carbon sequestration.

“When you are building soil structure, putting carbon back into the soil, when you have a diversity of crops species, when you have cover crops, you have then a very healthy microbiota,” she said. “The soil is better able to accept a lot of water instead of just going into an anaerobic state. The more carbon you have in your soil, the better it can hold the water.”

Although Rawson wasn’t in an area badly affected by Hurricane Irene, she remembers a few farmers reaching out to her organization for help.

“I remember feeling really frustrated at our inability as an organization to not help people,” she said. “We tried to connect people with organizations that could help. We certainly, we were not prepared.”

Carolyn Komatsoulis writes for the Gazette from the Boston University Statehouse Program.

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