Early retirement proposal among farmers’ concerns on state ‘Ag Day’

Tuesday was “Ag Day” on Beacon Hill, meaning it was a day for state legislators and administration officials to get an earful on key farming issues and a bellyful of Massachusetts farm products.

Some expressed concern that proposed early retirement of state employees to save money might hurt the state agriculture department.

As many as 300 dairy and sheep farmers, fruit and flower growers, and organizations, including Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, American Farmland Trust, Massachusetts Maple Producers Association, UMass Extension and others, met with key legislators to discuss the need to improve funding for the state Department of Agricultural Resources, its Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) program and grants to support buy-local campaigns like CISA, as well as legislation that could enhance the role of local agricultural commissions in helping with boards of health to promote farm viability.

“All of us have strong concern for increasing resources” for the state agriculture agency. An estimated 20 to 25 percent could be eligible for an early retirement incentive proposed as part of Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget proposal, said CISA Executive Director Philip Korman, who met early in the day with Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, and Sen. Ann Gobi, D-Spencer.

“We’re concerned with the loss of all that experience, and people in that agency are out in the field and on farms, and a lot of them are farmers, too,” said Korman, adding that the agency brings in more than its budget in fees.

Tuesday’s effort also called for $17 million in APR funding in the next budget year, an increase from the $10.3 million this year and what had been a $13 million program a few years ago. Funded by an Environmental Bond that has already been authorized with $48 million for the program over the next four years, the program has had a three-year waiting list for farmers who want to sell off the development rights to assure that their farms can remain in agriculture. There are now 52 APR projects waiting, representing more than 3,000 acres.

“Some farms really do need that source of capital because they want to be farms forever, so they need to diversify,” said Korman. “If they can’t sell the development rights, that’s a loss of resources to keep themselves thriving.”

Cris Coffin of American Farmland Trust said that a concern is that as state support for the program has fallen off, it’s below what’s needed to attract federal matching dollars so that the waiting period for farmers can be held to at most a couple of years.

Baker, visiting with the Ag Day contingent in the Great Hall of the Statehouse for a luncheon, emphasized that Massachusetts is among the top states in the country in terms of direct sales to consumers and plays a key role in supporting local economies.

Coffin emphasized the need for the agricultural resources staff to be large enough to effectively operate and manage the APR, Farm Viability and other programs.

Twelfth-generation Hatfield dairy farmer Darryl Williams, treasurer of the Massachusetts Association of Dairy Farmers, said farmers want to ensure that their input is considered as part of any future state regulations and legislation, and are promoting several bills filed by Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, creating a Livestock Care and Standards Board and also giving oversight for slaughter, cutting and packing to the state Department of Agricultural Resources as a way to encourage processing for meat and poultry.

Despite what agricultural groups say is a “tremendous demand for local meat,” the state has had a 13 percent decrease in livestock over the past five years, and many farmers have to leave the state to have their animals slaughtered elsewhere.

Kulik said his bill, H.711, would bring oversight of slaughter, cutting and packing to the agricultural agency, rather than the Department of Public Health, as has been done in Maine, Vermont and Connecticut. Inherent in the change, he said, is an understanding that the Department of Agricultural Resources needs additional funding to staff the expanded effort.

Another bill sponsored by Kulik, H.712, would give local agricultural commissions more of a say on town regulations imposed on farming by local boards of health.

Korman said, “It’s really an educational effort for legislators in the 495 area into Boston to understand that Massachusetts is still in part an agricultural economy, and the farms in the state are really important to New England and the state.”