Food plan aims to grow economy, community
Recorder Staff/Paul Franz - A variety of peppers and other local veggies are available at The Bars Farm Stand on Mill Village Road in Deerfield.
A Massachusetts Local Food Action plan being released today calls for the state to take steps to beef up agriculture and food production as a way to not only enhance the local food supply, but also to improve the economy and reduce hunger among those least able to feel secure about their next meal.
The plan’s broad goals are increasing Massachusetts food production, sales and consumption, creating jobs, improving wages and skills of food workers, protecting land and water for food production and reducing hunger and food insecurity. It notes the state now has 2,200 farms selling directly to consumers.
It calls for strengthening UMass Extension’s capacity to provide technical help to farmers and ensuring that federal, state and local regulations support the growth of agriculture and other food businesses while still protecting the environment and public health.
Regulations, especially those that work against the kinds of small-scale farms that have been thriving in the state, need to be appropriate for the size and complexity of those operations and be consistent from community to community, says the report, which was developed by the Franklin Regional Council of Governments and Pioneer Valley Regional Planning Commission along with the Metropolitan Regional Planning Council and the Massachusetts Workforce Alliance for the Massachusetts Food Policy Council.
“We’ve been a bit spoiled in our own backyard in the Connecticut River Valley by the high level of both agricultural businesses and the activity, acceptance and support that agriculture gets from the public and from consumers,” said Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, who sponsored the Food Policy Act that established the food policy council. “That’s grown across the state in the last few years,” so that pioneering Deerfield-based Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture is now among nine such booster organizations.
The plan in New England’s largest food-consuming state looks at the fishing industry for the first time as an important source of food. And in a state where land values have been increasing and where 13 acres a day are lost to development, it points the way for preserving more farmland so there’s more access for new and established farm operators and increasing food production.
Franklin regional planner Mary Praus, who was on the planning team that produced the 353-page report, said it recommends arranging leases for use of state-protected land in ways consistent with their preservation, whether for tapping trees for maple production or farming on the most suitable soils.
Another recommendation is to use more farmland, including state-protected farmland, that’s not in production, for growing food, she said.
Even before the plan’s release, she said, $125,000 in private foundation funding had been committed to begin its implementation, beginning early next year.
Philip Korman, CISA executive director, added that while an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the Pioneer Valley diet is locally grown, statewide that proportion is probably much smaller, and needs to be raised significantly.
“We’ve been a leader in the country, the region and the state for the many ways we’ve been able to grow local the food economy, but I think we have a long ways to go to where we want to be.”
Among the recommendations is to ramp up the amount of local food that’s made available to local food banks and pantries, he said, but also to expand the local food economy.
The plan talks about the need for food-safety and environmental regulations, but also about improving food safety through boosting increased education and technical assistance to get the same results with fewer enforcement actions.
“This food plan is only going to be effective if the public and advocates circle around it and really move forward to try to implement it,” Korman said. “Otherwise, it’s just a report that will sit on people’s desks. If people review it, are inspired by it and feel that the analysis and recommendations make sense, it gives us a chance to pursue certain actions.”
In the same way the state’s 1970s food plan help create the Agricultural Preservation Restriction program, he said, there’s potential for the new plan to help get people to work together on interconnecting social, environmental and economic issues.
Nico Lustig, Franklin County Community Development Corp. food business development specialist and a member of the team that worked on the Greenfield food processing center, said the plan points to the need for collaboration between regions on issues like distribution and food storage capacity.
Kulik said the plan, developed with the help of about 1,000 people in focus groups around the state, “will provide a map for the Legislature and the (Baker) administration to provide more technical assistance for farmers, through better funding of UMass Extension,” as well as the state Department of Agriculture, which saw its budget gutted after the 2008 recession and key staff reductions because of early retirements.
“It will be a challenge to see the recommendations become reality over the next few years,” said Kulik. “Agriculture and fresh, local food is something that makes people feel good. One of the values of having the plan put in the context of an economic development strategy for this administration, this Legislature, is to have it be a ‘feel-good’ part of life in Massachusetts, but also a real strong part of an economy that can grow and provide new jobs and support regional economies perhaps more than a lot of other types of business investments.”
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