Barbara Ballinger interviews Ag Commissioner Gregory Watson

Growing Interest in Agriculture:
Planting a Healthy Future for Massachusetts Farming

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Childhood backyard vegetable gardens and fruit trees can make an enormous difference in planting career roots. Just ask Gregory C. Watson, the state’s Department of Agricultural Resources Commissioner, who also served under Governors Michael Dukakis and William Weld. Watson’s long connection with the land and appreciation of agriculture began during his childhood with his grandmother’s vegetable garden and fruit trees and an uncle’s working farm. His own hands-on experience started in 1978 when he worked with urban community groups and rural farmers to develop a network of farmers’ markets in Boston. In his tenure as commissioner, he has helped to make Massachusetts the first state to establish a dairy pricing system. Here, he talks with Edible Berkshires writer Barbara Ballinger about state farming trends.

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How do you envision the state’s farming future?

Based on trends today, I think we’ll continue to forge creative partnerships that leverage funding, expertise and resources to benefit sustainable agriculture in rural as well as urban areas. Key components are best farming practices that “cultivate” soil conservation, disease/weather resistant hybrid plants and continued diversification so farmers can modify their business plans based on consumer, energy and environmental demands. I also see a new dynamic developing between farmers and consumers—more a partnership than traditional business transaction to make local food systems mutually beneficial. Farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs are examples; the “Buy Local” movement will endure.

Would you be more specific about what the Department of Agriculture has done lately to forge partnerships between farmers and consumers, besides farmers’ markets and CSAs?

The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) has been looking beyond the traditional agricultural practices and agricultural marketing venues. For example, MDAR has encouraged gleaning opportunities, farm-to-school initiatives, winter farmers’ markets, farm-to-restaurant/chef opportunities through culinary tourism, increased efforts through agricultural tourism destinations, mail order opportunities and value-added opportunities. The Department also relaunched the website (Mass.gov/agr/massgrown/) for which it recently won a “Bright Ideas” award from the Ash Center at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

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The number of farms in Massachusetts is increasing, though individual farm acreage is decreasing. How is MDAR able to help new farmers obtain more affordable land?
The Department has a number of programs, including the Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program (APR) and State-owned Farmland Licensing Program. APR has permanently restricted approximately 68,000 acres for commercial agricultural use. Some APRs are owned by land trusts, but the land should be actively farmed. The State-owned Farmland Licensing Program makes publicly owned agricultural land available to farmers and others. As demand for locally grown produce increases, we’ll investigate other ways that farmers might pursue, such as making state and federal land available to them. For fiscal year 2012, the four regional food banks collectively distributed over 54 million pounds of food, about 16.4 million pounds (30.1%) of which was purchased through the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program (MEPAP), which is coordinated by MDAR. Total funding provided by the Department of Agricultural Resources was $11.27 million.

So many farms are family owned; what can the state do to lower inheritance taxes to help pass on a farm?

Estate planning is an important aspect of ensuring continuity. The Department’s APR Program reduces the fair market value of the farmland to the fair agricultural value at the time of generational transfer. The funding received by the farmer due to the sale of the restriction to the state can be used for any purpose, from reinvesting in the business to setting aside funds for retirement or investment capital.

What needs to be done to help young farmers gain affordable access to farm land if they’re not part of a family business?

MDAR offers the Matching Enterprise Grant for Agriculture (MEGA) as one tool to assist new and beginning farm businesses with start-up or expansion costs. MEGA seeks to assist new and beginning farm businesses with start up or expansion costs. The program offers technical and business planning assistance to support beginning farmers’ special needs. It also makes available financial assistance for equipment, infrastructure or other capital improvements needed to implement strategies recommended through the planning process. There are also organizations such as the New England Small Farm Institute (NESFI) that work to support beginning farmers throughout the Northeast. NESFI is a land-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote small farm development by providing information and training for aspiring, beginning and transitioning farmer.

What’s being done in public schools to encourage young people to go into farming?

A number of schools have begun to integrate community gardens in their curriculum. I recently took a whistle-stop tour of agricultural projects on Martha’s Vineyard. Their farm-to-school program began as an effort to get school cafeterias to use locally produced ingredients in school lunches. Many of the schools now have gardens that teachers designed and students planted. Each grade has its own section. The students bring home the connection to their parents, who buy fresh, locally produced foods. Because of growing support for such food throughout the Commonwealth, I’m seeing more young people consider a farming career. Our August/September Farm & Market Report has a special edition focused on a new generation of farmers, and there are four accredited agricultural public high schools in the state; a robust FFA organization, formerly known as the Future Farmers of America; a very active 4-H membership with diverse programs appealing to various students’ interests from livestock education to robotics; a degree program offered at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The Massachusetts Agriculture in the Classroom program implements a wonderful curriculum on agriculture for teachers to implement into their classrooms.

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What else are you doing to help school lunch programs offer better food? Perhaps you’re the Massachusetts government foodie equivalent of Alice Watters and Jamie Oliver?
 
For more than a decade, the Department has supported the Massachusetts Farm to School Project. In fact, the Department launched the first statewide farm-to-school task force in 2000. Growing every year, and with the Department’s continued support, the Massachusetts Farm to School Project helps connect school cafeterias with Massachusetts farmers to deliver local, healthy foods to students. For the school year ending 2011, 217 public school districts (serving about two-thirds of the students enrolled in K–12 grades in Massachusetts) and 81 colleges and private schools stated they purchased locally grown foods. In spring 2012, 114 farms reported they sold directly to institutions. This fantastic program is important to be sure we have healthy students, healthy communities and a healthy farming community throughout Massachusetts.

What can you do to increase the number of value-added products to improve revenue?

Farmers already are doing a pretty outstanding job in generating revenue this way. Examples include more artisan cheesemakers, award-winning wines, cranberry products, canned and pickled goods. To help, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service provides specialty crop block grants, defined as fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture and nursery crops. In 2011, Massachusetts received funding for 17 projects totaling more than $450,000. We also try to help create additional marketing options. A number of farmers’ markets have extended operations into fall and winter to meet demand. The Boston Public Market promises to offer a high-profile venue when it opens in 2014. We’re working to both increase value-added products and marketing opportunities for Massachusetts growers and food entrepreneurs. We’re grateful that consumers want to be able to find Massachusetts-produced food and agricultural products at farmers’ markets, CSAs, roadside stands, retail stores and supermarkets. Many of the trends driving consumers’ interest in local foods are tied to supporting small, sustainable farms, local food businesses, infrastructure and community support. These consumers want to know what they put on the table!

A traditional definition of adding value is transforming products to another form with a higher price point than the commodity—fresh apples compared to apple pie, for example. The apples have a higher price point in the pie compared to fresh apples, and a longer sales window if the product is frozen. Value-added products contribute to a farm’s business viability. Food entrepreneurs in Massachusetts are also important to bring new products to market, in many cases using local ingredients.

On the product development and production side, MDAR supports a wide range of exciting products. MDAR receives over 50 inquiries annually, from growers and food entrepreneurs looking to start new food businesses. Starting with the online Food Processors Resource Guide, and other online resources, we look for opportunities to promote local ingredients, work closely with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, promote the three shared-use kitchens in the state and share other resources to support professional and business development. The Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center in Greenfield recently received a grant to expand its capacity for freezing local produce, as well as other support services.

You may know that artisanal cheesemakers are on the move in Massachusetts, with 25 businesses today compared to 18 in 2007, many winning national awards. We’re working with cheesemakers to form a new Massachusetts Cheese Guild with a focus on technical, educational and marketing activities, as well as to explore sales opportunities at the Boston Public Market. 

Our USDA Specialty Crops grant has focused on technical resources, educational and marketing programs for the Massachusetts Farm Winery and Growers Association, with an upcoming seminar on wine quality. The MFWGA recently used specialty crop funding to coordinate winemakers to have a collaborative presence at the Big E, and sample and sell wine. The Harvest New England Day, also at the Big E, is an opportunity for value-added and specialty food producers to market their products.

MDAR has been a partner with the Massachusetts Specialty Foods Association www.msfa.net for educational programs and marketing opportunities. We are also organizing a value-added tract at the Harvest New England Agricultural Marketing Conference and Trade Show, February 27–28, in Sturbridge. www.harvestnewnengland.org A focus on opportunities at shared-use kitchens will include (1) making your own product and marketing it, (2) having the kitchen produce the product while you market it, and (3) selling produce to the kitchen to be developed into another product and marketed by the kitchen. Another session will focus on setting up your own commercial kitchen and a third session will discuss opportunities to develop value-added products for schools.

MDAR coordinates a Massachusetts State Pavilion at the Summer Fancy Food Show to showcase our specialty and value-added products, created by growers and food entrepreneurs. The past few years have included many Massachusetts farm and food businesses “bringing home the gold,” in terms of food awards. Programs from USDA help to offset costs in this event as well as other trade shows. Food businesses wanting to grow beyond local and regional markets get assistance from MDAR for export development programs, to build business in international markets.

Massachusetts ranks seventh in the nation for the number of farmers’ markets. Now there’s going to be that big public downtown Boston market. How will farmers from all areas gain access?

Among the many goals for the new market is to ensure that growers and producers from every region are represented. The Department of Agricultural Resources plans to organize workshops and educational forums to help prospective vendors draft business plans and prepare their operations for the market. We’re just in the planning stages now but there is a website where folks can track progress: www.mass.gov/agr/public-market. The regional Buy Local campaign CISA—Community Involved in Sustaining Agricultural—as well as several commodity associations have received grant funding to research as well as strategize on details for selling at the market. Strategies for commodity-focused vending booths as well as information covering the regulations/permits/layout of market will also be addressed.

There are so many more community-supported agriculture programs or CSAs popping up that offer advantages to farmers and consumers. How does MDAR help?

MDAR offers agricultural business training programs from pre-venture and beginning farmers to courses geared towards agricultural enterprises with at least two years of income. MDAR’s Agricultural Business Training Program provides a forum for feedback and support . More than 475 agricultural enterprises have completed one of three MDAR course formats for different stages of farm development. The goal is to understand better the state and municipality regulatory requirements to improve financial and marketing practices. Our website includes information that lets consumers know when locally grown fruits and vegetables are available, which, in turn, helps them understand how local climates affect the agricultural economy. We also provide a map that locates farmers’ markets, roadside stands, CSAs (www.mass.gov/massgrown). Informing the press/media through press releases and events add another opportunity to educate the public on the purchasing local products through these venues. Promoting these marketing venues to consumers at events through promotional material gives consumers the actual information on “where to go”—a resource for finding local. At marketing workshops/conferences staff coordinate workshops to further educate farmers on marketing initiatives and diversifying market venues.

Can you explain how effective the Dairy Farmer Tax Credit Program has been?

The dairy industry is a cornerstone of the agricultural community as well as an integral part of Massachusetts’ economy. For many reasons—high feed and fuel costs, adverse weather, historically low milk prices established by the Federal government—the number of dairy farms has dwindled to fewer than 200 from nearly 5,000 in 1950. The state’s dairy industry has faced unprecedented economic hardship, which led to MDAR declaring a crisis in 2006. This triggered emergency relief and the formation of a Dairy Revitalization Task Force. One result has been the Dairy Farmer Tax Credit Program, which offers registered dairy farms a state income tax credit based on production for any month when the farm price for milk falls below a trigger price. The crux of the problem lies with the discrepancy between the federally regulated price for milk our dairy farmers receive and their costs of production—how much it actually takes to produce the milk. The federal formula is, in large part, based on the costs and economies of scale of Midwest farms that differ significantly from those here in Massachusetts and the rest of New England. The Dairy Tax Credit takes this discrepancy into account so that our farmers are not penalized when the regulated price for milk falls below what it costs them to produce it.

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Could you define what gleaning is, along with the Massachusetts Gleaning Network and how effective the Network has been been?

They were launched a year ago and include farms, volunteers, service agencies, food banks and other organizations. We see the Network as an important cog to provide individuals and families on fixed and low incomes with healthy, locally sourced food. MDAR serves as a clearinghouse for members to tap into an extensive, vetted database to participate in gleaning projects in their communities. It is wonderful to see the collaborative efforts of community organizations partnering together for such a public benefit. The Massachusetts 4-H program-club chapters have coordinated amazing gleaning efforts collaborating with other community organizers within their respective areas. “World Food Day” on October 24t recognizes opportunity of gleaning this day and beyond.

What’s being done to raise and maintain high standards of produce and products sold at large and smaller markets?

The Commonwealth Quality Program helps consumers identify products that are produced, harvested and responsibly processed in the state. Central to the initiative is a licensed “Seal of Commonwealth Quality,” which distinguishes Massachusetts products that meet comprehensive program requirements, plus federal, state and local regulatory regulations. The seal appears on certified Massachusetts produce, dairy, seafood and lumber products at farm stands, farmers’ markets and retail locations across the state. This voluntary industry-driven collaboration represents a significant advancement over traditional state label programs. MDAR staff work closely with CQP commodity associations and commodity advisory groups as well as retailers to make all parties assured that standards implemented are appropriate and feasible. Frequent communications with these partnering associations assure a smooth transition into compliance.

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