For Sake of Food and Future

The Recorder, December 20th, 2015, by Richie Davis.

There’s plenty to chew on in this community, and around North Quabbin where the hunger to turn the economy around and grow the local food economy is more than a pipe dream.

The Pioneer Valley has benefited from the efforts of CISA — Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture — for more than 20 years, and from the 7-year-old PV Grows network of farmers, food producers, entrepreneurs and organizations working to boost the farming economy. But it’s been a tougher row to hoe in the nine-town North Quabbin region, where the soil isn’t as fertile and the resources are spread thin, and further apart.

But in North Quabbin, where about 1,000 people were fed for Thanksgiving community meals in Orange and Athol, a grassroots effort called the Greater Quabbin Food Alliance is trying to shore up the food system in a holistic way. It’s about improving health and nutrition, about improving the battered overall economy, about helping the farms that do exist survive and helping people understand the value of supporting locally-rooted economy.

“We really have our finger on the pulse of what the need is,” says Heather Bialecki-Canning, executive director of the North Quabbin Community Coalition, one of the organizations plugged into the open-ended food alliance, and provider of 230 meals to homebound seniors and others in the nine-town region this Thanksgiving, in addition to the 1,000 served at community meals. “What’s sad about that is that North Quabbin has such wonderful farms, beef production and produce, and access to it’s really the issue and the know how. Those are the kinds of ideas that get talked about at Food Alliance meetings.”

Jamie Pottern, who coordinates the 2-year-old alliance as part of her role as land conservation specialist at Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, says she saw the need to bring together the various people working on “food system” issues across the land trust’s 23-town territory, which is divided between two counties and three regional planning agencies.
“The problems farmers are facing can’t be looked at in isolation,” says Potter, a graduate of the Conway School of Landscape Design as well as The Farm School’s Practical Farm Training Program in Athol. “They’re all part of the broader food system. There are so many initiatives happening at all levels.”

The alliance has brought together planners and economic specialists from the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, as well as the Montachusett and Central Worcester regional planning commissions, and chambers of commerce, human service agencies, town governments, along with farmers and those who work with them across an undefined “greater Quabbin” region to share ideas and inspire one another as work on specific projects to address the challenges of improving broader local food system.

Getting schools and other institutions — as well as ordinary folks — to buy more locally produced food is on the plate of alliance working groups, along with dealing with farm waste, protecting more farmland and helping young farmers connect with farms where there is no succession planned.

A farm-to-school working group, for instance, worked with the Franklin COG recently to bring a U.S. Department of Agriculture food procurement specialist together with area food-service directors to discuss barriers and opportunities.

Some of the alliance’s networking model feeds off what PV Grows has been doing, Pottern says, but “There’s so much energy already in the Valley, there’s more wealth, and that’s been going on a long time. We thought that model of bringing people together across boundaries could help spur conversations in the Quabbin region, where people are more isolated.

They’re also more economically challenged, says farmer John Moore III of Orange, whose main interest is beefing up interest in the Orange and Athol farmers markets, which have been hurt by the poor economy.

“In the last two years, everything went downhill,” says Moore, whose family has been farming in town since the 1780s, before Orange was even incorporated. At 68, he says, “We’ve got farmland that used to be here (in this area) that needs to be revamped, but we’ve got to have people to do it. I’m right on the top of the hill, and I fight with boulders that are half the size of our tractors.”

He also hears people haggling over the price of his corn and melons, saying “I can get a cantaloupe at Wal-Mart for 85 cents! The economy in Orange is just so bad.”

At the Quabbin Harvest Coop in town, board director Amy Borizo says, “With another business closing — Rodney Hunt — it does help put things into perspective, if you want to have that sense of a company owned right here that cares more about the community itself, instead of the larger profit motive. But when the rubber hits the road, there are a lot of issues for people about price.”

Farmers markets can be as affordable or cheaper than supermarkets, she said, but the overall economy benefits large-scale production and superstores.
Still, Quabbin Harvest prices abut 75 basic items to compete with Hannaford and Market Basket, and it offers Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program to help make local shopping as affordable for its 570 members as it would be to buy at the larger retailers, she said.

“We have to continue to work on it, to repeat the message over and over: if we want to have a more resilient, local economy, we need to start buying and building those networks now, so that in the future they’re there and we don’t have to rely on large-scale farming to provide our food.”

There’s also a cultural aspect, adds Bialecki.

“I really feel it’s a matter of teaching people to fish,” she says, pointing to community meals that regularly attract more than 70 people a week, where volunteers who have been there for years won’t necessarily be comfortable preparing or serving kale.

“How do we increase people’s ‘comfortableness’ in preparing healthy, fresh food if it’s not something they’ve experienced?”

At Mount Grace — which is being helped in its work by an Americorps Massachusetts Land Initiative for Tomorrow program, “We want to preserve farms, but we understand they need to be viable,” Pottern says. “If we’re going to get the next generation to take over these farms, there needs to be a viable food system.”

With meetings like the one held last week, held just a couple of times a year, apart from what the working groups are doing, she says helping a new food system take root here will be a long-term proposition. But she adds, “The energy in that room is palpable. The topic of food pertains to everybody who cares about health, scenery, tourism. People get really inspired and empowered to come together to work on things.”