Columnist Claire Morenon: 2019 reflections from CISA

Daily Hampshire Gazette, December 31, 2019

The turn of the year brings an opportunity for reflection on the year that has passed and the new year that is beginning, especially as we look ahead to a new decade. In the local food and farm world, 2019 was a year of relative calm and progress, from a good growing season to increased funding for food access and a lot of exciting new projects throughout the region. Still, many troubling realities, including climate change, widespread hunger and challenges to farm viability, persist.

2019 was a year of rebuilding for many fruit and vegetable farms in our region, who were starting from a serious financial deficit because of crop losses caused by extreme rainfall in 2018. The financial losses of 2018 will be taking their toll for years to come, and the favorable growing conditions in 2019 lifted some of that burden for many farms.

Still, the variable weather in our region has always been a source of uncertainty for farmers, and climate change will continue to bring new levels of risk to all weather-dependent businesses. The Fourth Annual Climate Change Assessment, released by the federal government in 2018, showed that the previous 10 years were 13% wetter than the long-term average, and the number of extreme precipitation events (days with more than 2 inches) was up 30%. As a real-time response to the damage caused by Hurricane Irene, CISA established the Emergency Farm Fund in 2012. It provides zero-interest loans to farms in the wake of natural disasters. In the coming decade, farmers will need much broader support to adapt their growing practices to a changing climate, and to implement practices that reduce agriculture’s contributions to climate change.

2019 was the third year of HIP, the Healthy Incentives Program, which offers an instant rebate when Massachusetts residents use their SNAP benefits to purchase fruits and vegetables from participating local farms. HIP represents a change in mainstream thinking: rather than understanding farm viability and hunger as unrelated or, worse, opposing issues, HIP brings farmers and people with low incomes together as mutual beneficiaries. This program has been an immense success, helping 70,000 families purchase $13.5 million of local produce from 200 Massachusetts farmers since its inception in 2017. This past year’s increase in state funding was a big step forward in making HIP a reliable source of healthy food for families with low incomes and a meaningful source of income for local farms.

Even so, the $6.5 million allocated for this fiscal year is not enough to fund HIP year-round, and a program suspension sometime this winter is likely. And the Trump administration recently announced cuts to SNAP that will affect 10,000 local people, according to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. CISA, along with partner organizations and program advocates, will continue to push for full funding for HIP at the state level and against changes at a federal level that undermine local anti-hunger efforts.

In 2019, the federal government released the most recent Agricultural Census, which provides a huge amount of data about farm sales, crops, land use, demographics, and countless other metrics which were gathered in 2017. The Census contained some sobering stats on how farms are doing: farm acreage has dropped 2% nationwide, and 6% in Massachusetts, since the last Ag Census in 2012. Average sales per farm fell by 5% nationally, and by 3% in the Commonwealth. Farms are struggling to compete in our global food system, and these numbers show it.

At the same time, 2019 brought some very hopeful new projects, investments and models. The Pioneer Valley Workers Center’s worker-run cooperative farm broke ground this summer in Hatfield. Springfield Public Schools opened its new Culinary and Nutrition Center, which is bringing scratch cooking back to school meals. Smith College Dining Services is leading the “Whole Animals for the Whole Region” project in partnership with other colleges and universities to purchase and use whole animals from local farms. Farmers continue to invest in on-farm infrastructure — two notable examples this year are the new commercial kitchen at Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland and the new full-service farm stand at Phoenix Fruit Farm in Belchertown.

The lesson of 2019 appears to be this: forward movement is possible and necessary, but it exists alongside setbacks and challenges. As we envision a new decade with vibrant local farms, equitable access to food and environmental sustainability, we must celebrate wins, look for opportunities for positive change, and work together to face the very real challenges before us.

Claire Morenon is communications manager at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).