Columnists Philip Korman and Margaret Christie: Advice about agriculture for candidates

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, July 30, 2018, by Philip Korman and Margaret Christie

Here are some notes about local agriculture for candidates seeking legislative seats.

Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) salutes your talents, skills, and willingness to represent the community. Filling the shoes of Sen. Stanley Rosenberg and Representatives Peter Kocot, Stephen Kulik, and John Scibak will not be an easy task!

If you are elected, we hope you embrace farms as the heart of the Valley’s culture and community. Local agriculture feeds our families and heats our homes, inspires our young people to stay in the Valley, and attracts visitors and transplants.

State policy has a major impact on local farms and helps to ensure that food grown here is available to everyone in the community. In the state’s new budget, for example, there are policies and funds supporting dairy farms, increasing the availability of local produce for low-income consumers, protecting farmland from development and regulating hemp production.

Your legislative peers from the eastern part of the state may not have the same deep connection to local agriculture. As a start, we recommend creative approaches: the late Rep. Kocot demonstrated the value of local farms by bringing his colleagues gifts of freshly harvested tomatoes, corn and kale.

In addition to sharing the bounty of our local farms, you’ll have to help your colleagues understand the pressures farm businesses face. Local farms must compete in a global economy, in which the price of food does not reflect its full costs: what’s needed to pay workers fairly and to protect the environment and public health.

Many of the costs of growing food in Massachusetts are higher than in other states or nations, including the minimum wage and the price of land putting our farmers at a disadvantage. Farmers get help from state agencies and educational institutions like the Department of Agricultural Resources and University of Massachusetts Cooperative Extension, and those agencies need funding from the Legislature to continue a laundry list of important activities, including research on environmentally friendly production practices and support for urban farms and food safety.

You’ll also have to learn about the intricacies of labor law and immigration policy and how those impact Massachusetts businesses. Finding people to work on farms is difficult in every state, because the work is hard and small farmers are hard-pressed to pay a wage that represents the skills of their workforce.

As in other states and industries, agriculture in Massachusetts relies in part on undocumented residents. Our Legislature has so far failed to do enough to protect the people who grow our food from the daily terror they experience every time they leave their homes to go to work.

People harvesting food for our communities are not a threat to our national security or even our job security. All of us deserve policies that recognize the vital work done by immigrants and ensure that all workers are granted respect, dignity, and the ability to support their families.

If you join the Legislature, you can take pride in that body’s role in developing tools to protect Massachusetts farmland. Innovative partnerships involving farmers, the state, land trusts, and local communities have permanently protected a little over 14 percent of the farmland statewide, including over 32,000 acres in Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire counties.

Yet, the cost of farmland remains high: both new and established farms struggle to find and pay for land. With federal funding for farmland protection decreasing, the Legislature should take the lead in ensuring that we will have the land base needed to produce our food in the future.

Food is an important thread that binds our communities together. We hold two goals: farmers and farmworkers should be paid fairly, and everyone who lives here should be able to enjoy fresh local food.

State policy can help fulfill both aspirations. The Legislature just approved a $4 million budget for the commonwealth’s Healthy Incentives Program, which provides an instant rebate to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients who buy produce directly from participating farmers. Through this program, our tax dollars do triple duty, helping to alleviate hunger, improve health status and support local farms.

In years to come, we’ll need legislative support to sustain and expand the program, which in 2017 served 40,000 households — representing fewer than 7 percent of all the SNAP households statewide.

If you do get elected, you’ll want to become familiar with the Massachusetts Local Food Action Plan and the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative which shepherds it. Created in 2015, the plan offers a blueprint for a sustainable and equitable food system.

You won’t be alone in this vital work. There is tremendous community enthusiasm for local farms in our region. CISA and other food and farm organizations, urban and rural, will be a source of information and support.

We wish you luck and look for your leadership to strengthen local agriculture and ensure that local food is available to all.

Philip Korman is the executive director and Margaret Christie is the special projects director for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture in South Deerfield.