Editorial: Plan for state agritourism commission good for WMass

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, December 7, 2018.

Can we agree to help our local farmers diversify and become stronger? In so many ways over recent decades, many organizations and our state government have worked hard to preserve and support farmers.

The state Agricultural Preservation Restriction program has shielded centuries-old farms from the pressure of selling out to commercial developers. Nonprofits like Kestrel Land Trust and the Franklin Land Trust have worked, often in tandem with the state APR program, to protect large tracts of woodlands and fields. Towns have adopted “Right to Farm” bylaws to allow farms to navigate more easily local rules that otherwise might hamper their continued activity as towns become more suburbanized.

The farms in our region are important not just for their contribution to the local economy, our tables and the job market, but because they are part of the very fabric of our lives here in “the country.”

Now, as the legislative year winds down, outgoing state Rep. Stephen Kulik is pushing for the state to study how it can promote agritourism as another way to boost the fortunes of the region’s farmers. The bill aims to create a state commission to find ways to “support, expand and enhance” opportunities for Massachusetts agricultural tourism.

The study commission would look at how other states promote agritourism, Kulik says, and also examine “any impediments in Massachusetts to having a more robust agritourism presence,” including local zoning or health bylaws that are inconsistent from one community to another. It would be charged with issuing a report to the governor and the Legislature one year after implementation, with recommendations for promoting agricultural tourism.

“If we can do things to bring more people to farms, for regular cider pressings or visits to sugar houses or to corn mazes for agricultural activities that supplement the primary focus of growing and harvesting their products, we could try to grow that as a viable business,” argues Kulik.

We agree. The Department of Agricultural Resources already distributes a free agritourism map listing more than 400 sites around the state.

Kulik says there have been problems in other parts of the state for farmers who have wanted to host weddings, operate bed and breakfasts or sponsor on-farm road races.

Earlier this year, Mass. Farm Bureau, which supports the legislation, noted that in recent times conflicts have arisen between farms and neighbors, local zoning and health regulations, in part because, many of the existing laws concerning farm activities did not consider agritourism, resulting in many gray areas. Kulik’s commission presumably could suggest ways to more easily allow farms to grow the tourism side of their businesses in ways that fit their towns

The bill passed the House and is now awaiting action in the Senate Ways and Means Committee, with Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, shepherding it toward a vote in the remainder of the informal session.

We urge the Senate to advance this bill so the state’s various agriculture and tourism related agencies can find ways to boost agritourism in Massachusetts. It just might be a way for Boston to meet western Mass.

In Hampshire County, agriculture is an important piece of the economic development pie. We often talk about machine tool factories, the creative economy and education as important to our area, but farming came before them all and is still with us, and should continue to be.