East meets west: State officials get first-hand account of the struggles Valley farmers face

Published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, September 19, 2021
HADLEY — State lawmakers toured four farms in Hampshire and Franklin counties on Friday to better understand the challenges facing farming communities in western Massachusetts.

The tour included stops at Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst and Reed Farm in Sunderland, as well as Barstow’s Dairy Store and Bakery at Longview Farm and Joe Czajkowski Farm, both in Hadley.

“Every opportunity to share what we’re doing is worthwhile,” said Denise Barstow, a seventh-generation member of the Barstow’s team.

While leading the legislators and a couple of state officials around her family’s dairy farm, Barstow talked about how the pandemic has had a big impact on its operations. In addition to major blows to dairy markets and fears of going out of business, Barstow said the farm is still “dealing with COVID-related staffing issues.”

Among those on the tour were Senate President Karen Spilka, state Rep. Carolyn Dykema and state Sen. Becca Rausch, co-chairs of the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture; and John Lebeaux, commissioner of the Department of Agricultural Resources (DAR) and Ashley Sears Randle, deputy commissioner of the DAR.

The tour was hosted by state Sen. Jo Comerford and state Reps. Natalie Blais, Dan Carey and Mindy Domb, as well as Winton Pitcoff from the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative and Phil Korman, executive director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture.

Carey, D-Easthampton, said the idea was to “bring the work of the State House to real life,” hoping that it would give lawmakers personal connections to the bills they debate on Beacon Hill.

“A huge part of our job is making sure eastern Mass. knows about western Mass.,” Carey said.

Blais, D-Sunderland, echoed that sentiment, noting that “being here, you feel the struggle” that farmers face.

“All these people gather here from all areas of the state to learn about agriculture and challenges our farmers are dealing with. We can create concrete legislative solutions that could make a difference,” she said during the tour’s stop earlier in the morning at Reed Farm in Sunderland.

At Reed Farm, a 13-acre farm established in 2019, poultry farmers and processors Peter Reed Laznicka and Kat Chang Laznicka showed the officials the barn where they process the chickens they raise, as well as poultry from other farmers.

Kat Laznicka told of her experience of slaughtering 20 chickens by hand and how long it took when she first started out raising meat birds. The farm has equipment to process birds efficiently, as mechanical feather pluckers and butchering racks simplify the work before parts are vacuum wrapped and air-chilled in their new cooler. The farm was awarded a Food Security Infrastructure Grant for upgrades including a new septic system and a walk-in cooler and freezer.

After the tour of Barstow’s cow barn, methane digester and robotic milkers later in the day, Pitcoff said that “farming and food are part of every conversation” at the State House. For example, he explained how talks about developing affordable housing “can’t come at the expense of farmland.”

“Every day, Massachusetts farmers have to contend with climate change, shifting markets, and a host of other forces that challenge their survival,” Pitcoff said. “The state has opportunities, through supportive policy and wise investments, to ensure that local farms can continue to feed our communities while remaining financially viable, environmentally sustainable, and resilient in the face of these challenges.”

Noting that “we’ve done similar events like this up and down the Valley,” Carey said this is how he and his colleagues represent the interests of their constituents. “Connecting state leaders with our local agricultural leaders will help inform policy decisions that will benefit people across the commonwealth,” he said.

As the agricultural industry intersects with issues ranging from economic development, food insecurity and the climate crisis, Carey said he hopes the tour “brings a new level of understanding to the conversation” at the State House.

“This tour highlights the accomplishments and challenges confronting our farmers, and how we can be of more help in this sector,” said Domb, D-Amherst. She also pointed to how lawmakers should strive to “tap into the expertise” of farmers for fighting the climate crisis.

Barstow highlighted the importance of climate resilience in agriculture, mentioning her farm’s dedication to producing more crops with less land, limiting methane emissions, and recycling water. She said that everything Barstow’s does wouldn’t be possible without state and federal funding.

John Lebeaux, the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, described how “being a farmer in Massachusetts isn’t the easiest thing to do,” considering the high costs of land and labor, among other factors. Since the industry is so critical, he said it’s “very important for us to get out in the field” to witness farming firsthand.

This story includes reporting by Staff Photographer Paul Franz.