CISA helps farmers stay strong in face of economic challenges: Viewpoint

The Republican, February 13, 2018, by Claire Morenon.

The Pioneer Valley is home to 2,161 farms, which generate $128 million in annual sales, steward 182,430 acres of land and employ 4,300 people. The survival of these farm businesses is dependent on strong local infrastructure to enable them to process and distribute their products, on the support of local businesses like restaurants and grocery stores, and on the ongoing support of local shoppers choosing to buy local. But while the work to sustain local agriculture must happen at a local level, farmers in our region are affected by changes and pressures happening on a national and even global level.

Studies demonstrate that choosing local food does have a real impact on the local economy. Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) maintains a local food impact calculator (online at that shows how a shift of just $5 per week toward local produce in every household in Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties, with no increase in spending, would generate over $8.1 million in local income and 234 local jobs.

Financially viable farm businesses are a cornerstone of a strong local food system, but that is far from the whole picture. A truly resilient and vibrant local food system is manifested in sustainable use of environmental resources such as land and water, good working conditions and respect for agricultural workers, and healthy, culturally appropriate food being available to all members of our community.

In 2017, we were reminded time and again that the locally focused work toward this vision doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and that the forces that shape the world outside the Pioneer Valley “bubble” have real effects here, too.

Over the last year, the Trump administration’s shift in federal policy regarding undocumented residents has created an atmosphere of fear in communities throughout the valley, including agricultural communities. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that 72 percent of all farmworkers nationwide are foreign-born, and 46 percent are undocumented. There’s not much data on the composition of the Massachusetts agricultural workforce, although we do know that much of our food is also grown by immigrant workers. In November, Immigration & Customs Enforcement detained three farmworkers on their way home from work on a Hatfield farm.

Our local agricultural and labor advocate community has responded to this federal shift, and that work is still ongoing. In April, a group of 75 farm owners, advocates and lawmakers met to discuss immigration policy and the need for legal protections for farmworkers. The Pioneer Valley Workers Center has emerged as a leader in worker advocacy over the last year, raising up worker voices and coordinating community responses to threats to workers.

In June, Amazon announced that it would be buying Whole Foods. This has the potential to change the grocery business for smaller retailers, and relationships between grocery stores and local farms, in serious and unknown ways.

These examples illustrate we must be prepared to respond to changes that are well outside our local control. In 2018, CISA is celebrating 25 years of building local resilience by strengthening the connections between local farms and the community. And we’re not alone as 426 local farms and businesses have joined our Local Hero program. We also work in partnership with organizations throughout our region that are focused on interconnected issues, including hunger, food justice and more.

Over the next year, Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture will be focused on supporting the next generation of farmers through technical assistance geared toward those who have been farming for 10 years or less, a group that makes up 36 percent of the farms in CISA’s Local Hero membership.

We’re coordinating with colleges and institutions to help them learn from each other’s experience and identify new opportunities for local sourcing. We’re committed to work with the Springfield Public Schools, Sodexo, the Springfield Food Policy Council and other partners to support the development of the culinary and school nutrition center in Springfield, which will serve multiple school districts with a commitment to local food.

CISA and statewide partners are making local food more available to low-income households through the Healthy Incentives Program, which offers an instant rebate when customers use SNAP to purchase fruits and vegetables directly from local farms.

The last year has shown the vital importance of this work, which can only happen in partnership with the region’s farm owners and workers, business leaders, activists and shoppers. And it has strengthened our resolve to build a resilient local food system that can withstand, and function as an antidote to, national and global inequities and challenges.

Claire Morenon is communications manager for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture.