U.S. Rep McGovern Tours Innovative Pioneer Valley Farms
MassLive, September 1, 2016, by Mary Serreze
Congressman Jim McGovern said what he witnessed in Western Massachusetts this week will help him enormously when hearings begin next year in Washington to re-authorize the federal farm bill.
“This isn’t Iowa,” said the Worcester Democrat during day two of his annual tour of farms in the 2nd Congressional District, which includes the verdant Pioneer Valley. “The needs and concerns of New England farmers are very different.”
McGovern, flanked by state and federal agriculture officials, heard about the difficulty niche farmers face in accessing crop insurance, about soaring costs and low milk prices for dairy farmers, and problems retaining a reliable labor force during harvest time on a wholesale vegetable farm.
At the same time, he witnessed a stunning level of creativity, and saw farmers who are making the business model work in a brave new world.
Bar-Way Farm in Deerfield is building a methane digester that will consume 25 tons of manure and 45 tons of food waste every day to produce electricity. Development partner Vanguard Renewables will sell the power to the grid, and benefit from renewable energy credits. The farm will heat its buildings with the waste heat, and receive nitrogen-rich liquid fertilizer and compost.
The facility is expected to cut farm production costs by about 15 percent, said Peter Melnick, who keeps 500 milking cows at his Mill Village Road family farm. The digester will also reduce the farm’s carbon footprint by 85 percent. The $4 million plant benefited from a $400,000 grant from the the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center and a $335,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“The Melnicks have always been at the forefront of innovation,” McGovern said.
The Kitchen Garden in Sunderland is run by a young couple who grow organic niche crops and produce their own brands of salsa and siracha sauce, which are sold throughout New England. Caroline Pam and Tim Wilcox gave a tour of their new building that lets them wash, produce and store vegetables to support their value-added operation.
“The building is new this year,” Pam said. The operation benefited from a state Department of Agricultural Resources grant, a USDA rural development grant, and an agricultural energy grant for solar panels.
The two are in their 11th year of farming with 50 acres and more than a dozen employees.
“We started with a single acre,” Pam said, adding that initially, access to land was the biggest challenge. As for this season’s drought, there have been challenges — “but the peppers are hotter than ever,” she said.
Twin Oaks Farm in Hadley is a traditional wholesaler, growing around 20 varieties of vegetables. Co-owner Edwin Matuszko told McGovern he and his wife Linda Kingsley had a serious “labor meltdown” this year. He urged McGovern to push for reform to the country’s guest worker program.
“We used to have the same guys every year, from Jamaica,” said Matuskzo. “They were great. Then there were changes to the federal program. Now we get guys from Holyoke and Springfield, and they sometimes just quit or don’t show up.”
Kingsley said the drought had hit them hard. “We lost about 80 percent of our cabbage crop,” she said. Kingsley said she and her family work so hard, they don’t have time to research available support programs.
At a meeting at Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) in Deerfield, officials discussed programs, including federal crop insurance, and the impediments New England farmers encounter when trying to access assistance designed for large Midwestern operations.
CISA director Phil Korman said it’s been a “double whammy” this year with the extended drought, and a February deep freeze that destroyed any possibility of a peach crop this year. He noted that his organization just received a grant to help farmers connect with state and federal programs.
“The programs are no good if you don’t know about them,” he said.
Brad Pfaff, a deputy administrator with the USDA and Wisconsin native, said the drought has had a multi-million dollar impact on farms across the state. He encouraged farmers to connect with CISA and with their local Farm Services Agency office in Amherst.
Pfaff said he was amazed at the level of creativity and innovation he witnessed in the Pioneer Valley, and would take what he learned back to Washington.
Other farms McGovern visited Wednesday were Tanstaafl Farm in Greenfield, Plainville Farm in Hadley, and Winter Moon Farm in Hadley where there was a roundtable discussion on climate change and its impact on agricultural production.
Farmers said that five years ago, during Hurricane Irene, they watched as their crops floated away. This year, they are watching as their crops wither and dry.
“It’s either too much water or not enough,” McGovern said, adding that there’s a new emphasis on resilience.
Rep. John Scibak said Western Massachusetts farms are a major contributor to the economy, and should get the same level of public support as manufacturing operations.
McGovern, Pfaff, and statewide USDA Farm Services Agency director Jonathan Niedzielski said the two-day tour would be food for thought in discussions around the next federal farm bill. At the end of the tour, McGovern was honored with a lifetime membership to the Northeast Organic Farming Association.
McGovern said his involvement in farm-related issues has grown over the years.
“I started with a real interest in food security,” he said. “With redistricting (after the 2010 census), I represented more farm communities. Now I make this tour every year, and I’m here to listen.”
McGovern is a member of the House Agricultural Committee.
Mary Serreze can be reached at email@example.com