Editorial: Keep Supporting Our Farms

The Recorder, May 16th, 2016

We suspect there are plenty of people inside the Legislature and state government, including Gov. Charlie Baker, who like western Massachusetts. After all, the region offers a wonderful mix of natural beauty, history and small-town charm.

But, more importantly, some of those public servants on Beacon Hill genuinely get western Mass., including state Senate President Stanley Rosenberg.

The Amherst Democrat understands that agriculture — including the dairy farms that dot the Pioneer Valley and others raising a variety of fruits, vegetables and flowers — is an integral part of the economy and life here.

It’s this understanding of the role farming plays here that has Rosenberg ensuring agriculture legislation doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. At his prompting, this year the Senate took a different approach, bringing together a number of agriculture related initiatives under a single “omnibus” farm bill. They ranged from loosening some restrictions on the sale of raw milk to allowing sale of local farm products at state parks to providing help to military veterans looking to join the agricultural workforce.

This is certainly an efficient approach, one that focuses the Senate’s attention on an important segment of the state economy. Rosenberg says he was the first Senate president to gather these kinds of bills into one package.

“Farming is more than just an industry for our small, family-owned farms across the commonwealth,” Rosenberg told The Recorder recently. “It’s a way of life. Farms also enhance the protection of open space and add to our robust tourism industry. This bill expands opportunities for the thousands of agricultural workers who call Massachusetts home, and increases access to healthy, locally sourced food.”

It’s easy to see why this kind of legislation is important when you consider the data marshaled by bill sponsor Sen. Anne M. Gobi, chair of the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture.

“There are 7,755 farms in Massachusetts working on over 523,000 acres to produce $492 million in agricultural products. Massachusetts farms provide employment to nearly 28,000 workers in the Commonwealth,” according to a press release from Gobi.

Since 2007, Massachusetts saw agri-tourism sales grow by 127 percent. At nearly $48 million, direct market sales account for 10 percent of the state’s total sales of agricultural products, placing us fifth in the nation for direct market sales.

“We are fortunate to have so many people willing to spend their time and finances to make sure the rest of us enjoy a wide array of agricultural products,” Gobi said. “This bill is a step in recognizing their efforts and to support them moving forward.”

It’s now up to the House to move this omnibus legislation along. Fortunately for western Mass., we have in the House state Rep. Stephen Kulik of Worthington, who co-chairs the Massachusetts Food Policy Council, and others in the area’s legislative delegation who understand the importance of such a bill and can make the case for it.

Let’s do more than “like” this particular piece of legislation; let’s get it done.