Legislators get tour of area farms

The Recorder, September 28, 2017, by Richie Davis

With two reporters and two state legislators in tow, the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation organized a “down on the farm” tour to touch on some of the key agricultural issues like locally grown hops for the region’s craft beers, pollinator health and the health of local dairy farms.

Rep. Stephen Kulik was on hand for a discussion of issues related to beekeepers at Warm Colors Apiary and concerns about the Agricultural Preservation Restriction Act and farm labor rules at Pioneer Gardens, both in Deerfield. That followed a review at Barstow’s Longview Farm in Hadley of Kulik’s proposed Dairy Farm Tax Credit bill and other potential relief for the state’s ailing dairy farmers.

Rep. John Scibak, D-South Hadley, also participated in part of the tour, which ended at the People’s Pint in Greenfield for a lunchtime discussion of increased use of locally grown hops by breweries around the region.

To address continued low prices paid to farmers for milk, the Farm Bureau is supporting Kulik’s House Bill 2616, which would double from $4 million to $8 million the limit on the allowable tax credit to be paid to dairy farms when milk production costs exceed what farmers are paid for milk.

“It’s kept a lot of dairy farmers from going out of businesses the last few years,” said Kulik, D-Worthington. “A lot of dairy farms are struggling right now. They would really like to see this increase. I think we would have possibly done it this year but for the shortfall in state revenues, but state revenues seem to be stabilizing and perhaps increasing a little bit, so I’m hopeful that this session we’ll get that done. Dairy farmers tell me it would be incredibly helpful; it’s their number one priority.”

Another Kulik-sponsored bill supported by the Farm Bureau, House 441, would create a panel of farmers, local humane organizations, veterinary organizations and state agencies within the Department of Agricultural Resources to ensure humane treatment of livestock. The board, which would be empowered to create relevant regulations and guidance, would help ensure that future livestock policy is based on science and broad consensus, “rather than emotion,” according to the farming organization.

The Humane Society of the United States, which backed a question on last November’s ballot that banned “inhumane” confinement of laying hens, calls the proposed livestock board “deceptive” and “politically unaccountable” on its website.

Beekeeping

At Warm Colors Apiary, beekeeper Dan Conlon told the lawmakers he has seen dramatic growth in beekeeping from when he began in business about 17 years ago.

He said problems honeybee populations are experiencing around the country have not strongly affected the Pioneer Valley, because there are not migrating pollination contractors that travel around the country and spread disease or parasites.

Still, he told the legislators — as they watched four workers in protective clothing weighing roughly 100 hives inhabited by an estimated 50 million honeybees — that he suffered a 25 percent bee loss last spring, the highest since 2001, because of a combination of bears and last February’s Conway tornado.

Program complaints

At Pioneer Gardens, which grows perennial plants to wholesale nurseries around the country, co-owner Jaap Molenaar told Kulik that the state’s “sluggish and underfunded” agricultural preservation program is preventing him from even applying to a program that was, in the past, instrumental to his buying the nearly 70 acres for the successful farm he now owns.

“It’s an important piece, right in the middle of where we’re farming now,” Molenaar told Kulik. “We can’t wait another two, three years for funding. It used to be a lot easier. All my land is APR land; otherwise I couldn’t afford to buy it.” Through the Agricultural Preservation Restriction program, landowners sell development rights to the state, moving purchase of the property within easier reach of farmers.

Kulik said development pressure, which is high in the Pioneer Valley, should be enough to expedite the process, especially for a farmer who’s also running a successful operation.

Local hops

At the People’s Pint, which now has five beers on tap made exclusively with hops grown at Northfield’s Four Star Farms, discussion focused on the growing interest among breweries in using local hops, as well as malt from locally grown barley.

“More brewers are leaning in that direction, because more people want local beer,” said Chris Sellers, People’s Pint’s brewmaster. “So a lot of brewers want to use local ingredients.”

Four Star, which over a span of about eight years has increased its hops acreage from seven to 17 , now yields nearly 15,000 pounds of hops a year for about 35 breweries all over Massachusetts, as well as Connecticut and into New Hampshire, said Liz L’Etoile, director of Four Star’s sales and marketing. She said the yield from that acreage is expected to grow to about 25,000 in a couple of more years.

“We feel there’s a strong regional market for hops,” she said. “More breweries are investing in local and making it part of their business plan.”

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