CISA marks 25 years of putting local first

The Recorder, March 9, 2018, by Richie Davis

When farmer Michael Docter heard that a local group had won a $1.2 million Kellogg Foundation grant to help local farmers back in 1993, he was among area farmers who saw it as a waste of money — that it would be better spent throwing cash in the air for farmers to catch.

“I didn’t see how the money could be used,” said Docter, who was running the Food Bank Farm in Hadley and now operates Winter Moon Farm there. One of many skeptics at the time, he became a “late convert” to what was born 25 years ago as Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture.

“Clearly we were dead wrong,” said Docter. “CISA has done a spectacular job fostering local support for local agriculture.”

Its “Be a Local Hero” campaign has become so well known and so synonymous with the Deerfield-based nonprofit, but CISA’s work over a quarter-century has been extensive. It includes research on issues like the costs of dairy production and the need for key processing and storage components, as well as workshops and one-on-one help for farmers on business issues, complex health and safety regulations and on immigration.

CISA has also advocated for limiting regulations on small farms, and for encouraging better access to local produce for low-income populations.

Deerfield farmer Tom Clark, who was part of a focus group that helped write the original CISA grant, remembers trying to interest local supermarkets in buying his Clarkdale apples.

“They didn’t want to buy local stuff,” said Clark, recalling the attitude of chains before CISA began promoting locally grown products. “CISA was in the right place at the right time,” he said.

Yet it’s also been 25 years of greater interest in healthier eating, the entry by young farmers and new approaches like hoop houses and local food processing to extend growing and marketing seasons. So, Clark says, “We don’t know what came first: the chicken or the egg.”

CISA’s “Local Hero” campaign was a morale booster for Pioneer Valley agriculture at a time when wholesale sales drove down prices on most area farms, recalls Michael Wissemann of Sunderland’s Warner Farm.

Although the state had run a “Massachusetts Grown … and Fresher” marketing campaign, Warner recalls “We were an ugly lot,” growing potatoes, sweet corn and cucumbers for the now-defunct Oxford pickle plant. “We weren’t getting anyplace fast.”

At the time he wholesaled 80 percent of his produce — twice as much as now.

Over the past 25 years, farmers have felt like they’ve gone from being treated like persona-non-grata to “rock star” status, he added.

“When CISA came in, they were kind of the first in the country with the idea of buy locally,” Wisseman said. “People were drifting away from farming. They helped bring farming back in fashion and were instrumental in highlighting the importance of agriculture in our area. With that, farming became a cool thing to do. CISA can’t take 100 percent of the credit, but they exposed people to farms so they became more aware of us.”

In the two decades between 1992 and 2012, according to the U.S, Census of Agriculture, the number of Franklin County farms increased from 519 to 780, with farmland increasing from 74,484 to 89,772 acres. With an increase in the number of Pioneer Valley farmers markets (from 10 in 2001 to 36 today) and the number from community supported agriculture farms (CSAs) from one in 1986 to 51 today, direct sales by the three counties’ farms has more than doubled from $4.2 million in 1992 to $10.4 million today inconstant dollars, according to CISA spokeswoman Claire Morenon.

The 274-member organization didn’t single-handedly help make agriculture more viable. Much of its work has been in collaboration with other players, among them the Franklin and Mount Grace land trusts, Massachusetts Farm to School, the Franklin County Community Development Corp. and its Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center and the state Department of Agricultural Resources, which has protected farmland through its Agricultural Preservation Restriction program.

Focusing early on building community support for local agriculture and helping people find it and use it, CISA has also done workshops for new farmers, in particular, on how to best sell their products and diversify, says the organization’s special project director, Margaret Christie, who served as executive director from 1997 to 1999, when the Local Hero program was launched, and as interim executive director in 2008.

Armed with research that people here already saw the importance of keeping dollars recirculating locally, “We really built community support and helped people see how they can take an active role, not only recognizing how they liked the view when they drove down the road, but seeing the connection between their actions and maintaining that view,” Christie said.

Complex problems remain for local farming, she acknowledged, pointing to immigration issues around farm labor as one example, “but we can help improve communication on farms, to strengthen teams across language and cultural barriers.

CISA was a founding partner in PV Grows, a coalition of farm-related organizations to address broader agricultural issues, including a fund that’s invested in Valley Malt as well as Deerfield’s Mycoterra mushroom farm and Casey’s Cans, providing critical sanitary facilities to field workers.

As the landscape keeps changing, with new regulations, and new wrinkles that crop up in innovations, it’s the resourcefulness of farmers themselves who often provide solutions, said Christie.

From the dramatic growth of CSAs to Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods, there are constant changes, she noted, and “We have to learn from farmers. They deal with that every day, with weather, with year-to-year changes in demand, changes in pricing, and in global market. Farmers are experts at being innovative and creative. We have to learn from them how to be responsive in the marketplace, so we’re giving people what they want and help educate people about agriculture, so they recognize that one of the things they want is to have farms here, so you … make that part of your daily diet.”

On the Web:

You can reach Richie Davis at: or 413-772-0261, ext. 269.