Farms survey feeds into resilient local food system
The Recorder, February 27, 2014. By Richie Davis.
A new survey of Franklin County farmers is pointing the way for a “Farm and Food System Project” to boost the region’s agricultural economy.
The survey, which drew responses from 134 farmers, is part of a program for which the Franklin Regional Council of Governments received a $74,000 grant to build “a resilient regional food system.”
The survey provides information that’s useful in understanding the next steps needed to help farmers remain viable and expand, says Mary Praus, the COG land-use planner in coordinating the program.
The advisory group working on the program is thinking of some “out of the box” ideas to address some of the needs.
One idea to help farmers find access to arable land is to possibly have a variation on a “speed dating” session involving people who have available land that may have been farmed years ago with farmers who are searching for land.
Another idea, aimed at improving access to healthful, locally grown foods, is to set up a farm stand at an independently owned convenience store, Praus said.
“A lot of what’s come out of this initial survey of farmers is what they need right now, what we can do right now, what’s already being done but farmers just need to be plugged into. It’s an opportunity for some discreet projects as we go along, and to identify what we can’t do under this funding.”
The 18-month grant is aimed at helping to build connections among the many groups that work with farmers, not only in Franklin County, but with other parts of western Massachusetts and elsewhere in the state, said Praus, recognizing that regional planning agencies could and should play a role.
The program is also designed to build collaboration with a dozen or so organizations from Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, area land trusts, Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, Franklin County CDC and the nonprofit organization Land for Good.
As a follow-up to what farmers called for, Land for Good has scheduled a session to discuss land access for farmers — some of them renters — who say they’re in need of more farmland.
The 134 responses represents about 18 percent of the total number of farms reported in the 2007 agricultural census, although Praus says that for busy farmers, that’s great, especially considering that it includes a broad range of farm sizes and nearly all towns in the county.
More than half of the farmers responding are between 45 and 64 years old, and most report either operating alone or with two to five workers.
The largest proportion say they sell at their own farm stands, or directly to stores or at farmers markets, and nearly half say that more than 75 percent of their products are sold in Franklin County. Asked what the greatest barriers are to selling more in the county, half said they don’t have time to seek new markets, there’s the perception in the county that people can’t afford to buy local produce and, in a related matter, that they “can get a better price elsewhere.”
Dealing with that perception about the expense of local products, says Praus, is “a very complicated” issue that involves labor costs and other baseline operating considerations, but that the working group coordinating the program hopes to look at this further.
More than 70 percent of those responding said they are able to sell their meat and poultry products at an acceptable profit margin, and 45 farmers said they’re interested in a meat-processing component at the CDC’s Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center in Greenfield — something that’s become a reality since the question was first posed.
More than half of those asked said they’re not interested in a cold-storage center in which they could rent space, one of several key infrastructure needs that’s been pointed to by CISA.
“More and more farmers are upgrading (cold storage) facilities on their farms,” says Margaret Cristie, CISA’s special projects director. “We’re finding that the need for joint cold storage is not as great as was thought initially, and this survey confirmed that.”
Even though nearly half of them are 45 or older, 67 of the farmers said they have no transition plan for their farm, and 42 farmers say they have no successor identified.
Praus said her program has already had one session for farmers who expressed interest in getting more information, and more are planned, with land trusts, Land for Good, CISA and other organizations that can help.
“We live in a place that’s incredibly bountiful and we also live in a place where there are people who are not eating that bounty,” she said. “This project was designed to touch on both of those elements.”