Editorial: Family Farms Grow in Significance

The Recorder, September 24th, 2015

You don’t have to convince us about the role family farms play in Massachusetts. Agriculture, after all, is woven through the hills and valleys of western and central Massachusetts.

It’s an integral part of life here, whether we’re talking about a farm that is generations old or a new enterprise that is just getting started. Our farms provide a livelihood for some and a place the rest of us can go to get fresh local fruit, vegetables, dairy, flowers, meat and, yes, yogurt. Farms have an economic, social and environmental impact.

But it seems farming is having something of a resurgence statewide, a trend the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Census of Agriculture” bears out. In the most recent census, covering the years 2002 to 2012, the number of farms in the state rose by 1,680 to 7,755, a jump of 28 percent. But while the number of farms in Massachusetts climbed, the actual size of those farms across the state went down. The average size of a Massachusetts farm went from 85 acres in 2002 to 68 acres in 2012.

Here’s where Franklin County seems to be bucking the trend about size. Like the rest of the state, the county saw the number of farms climb from 741 to 780, a 5 percent increase during the five-year period between 2007 and 2012. Acreage in farming during that period also went up from 79,465 acres to 89,722 acres, a 13 percent jump, and the average size of farms rose eight acres from 107 to 115, an increase of roughly 7 percent.

Here’s another point of information from the census data: The number of farms selling their products directly to consumers increased by nearly a third, from 1,659 in 2007 to 2,206 in 2012. Farmers markets, farm stands and other agricultural programs supported by the community help make this possible. Again, we have to think that western Massachusetts was a trail blazer here, with the formation of the Pioneer Valley Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture in 1993, leading to the project known as “Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture” or CISA, and the creation of its “Be a Local Hero” campaign. And that continues today. Among the components of its strategic plan for the next two years, is “Strengthening the network of farmers and other businesses in the local food economy.”

What’s happening here in Massachusetts is reflected in what the census found:

“What we found is that family-owned businesses, while very diverse, are at the core of the U.S. agriculture industry. … Whether small or large — on the East Coast, West Coast, or the Midwest — family farms produce food and fiber for people all across the U.S. and the world,” NASS Statistics Division Director Hubert Hamer said earlier this year.

Family farms are truly part of who we are, especially in western Massachusetts.