Look back, lean forward for Valley agriculture

Daily Hampshire Gazette
Thursday, December 20, 2012
Philip Korman and Margaret Christie

In today’s world, as our culture tries to keep pace with new technologies, we often do not have time to pause to see where we are, how we got there and where we can go. In the realm of local food, a steady stream of hopeful opportunities in local agriculture can keep our staff at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture) and that of our partners running from one good idea to the next.

But the value of reflection before acting cannot be underestimated.

As we prepare for CISA’s 20th anniversary in 2013, we have made a point of talking to people involved in local agriculture for 10, 20, 30 years and more. Some past issues remain challenges today – the high cost of farmland for beginning farmers, competition from global agriculture, the aging of our farmers and the conundrum of cheap globally produced food and hungry local residents who need access to healthy local food.

As we look back at 2012, however, we see patterns of change, some hopeful and some challenging. To begin, weather has always been a factor in the life of a farmer. It is unpredictable and yet can determine whether years of work bear fruit. Last spring, we saw extremely warm temperatures followed by a cold snap, damaging young apple buds and reducing harvests for some orchards. Between mid-June and mid-July less than an inch of rain fell. Farmers with decades of experience told us they had never witnessed such a long stretch with no rain.

Hurricane Sandy came up the coast in October, exposing the vulnerability of our metropolises. The storm missed most of New England but reminded us of Tropical Storm Irene’s impact last year. Following Irene, CISA distributed $93,000 in emergency loans to farmers.

While our Emergency Farm Fund was not needed for any disasters in 2012, we have worked to ensure that the fund is cash-ready for the next weather disaster. The increased volatility of our climate looks different every year, but staying in business requires that farmers figure out how to respond. Farmers are changing their crop mix, growing more under cover in greenhouses and plastic tunnels, buying more crop insurance and spreading their income and risk out with year-round production.

In Washington, Congress has failed to pass a new Farm Bill. Every five years, the bill determines farm, nutrition and hunger policy for the nation. On the state level, recent budget cuts eliminated $200,000 in funding for CISA and the other “buy local” organizations that promote and identify locally grown products. On the positive side, the Massachusetts Food Policy Council is launching a statewide planning process focused on building a food system that strengthens our regional economy, creates green jobs, provides healthy, locally grown food for all residents, addresses hunger and ensures a resilient food supply. This is the first statewide food system planning since 1974 and it has the potential for long-term positive impact.

On the local level, enthusiasm for local food and farms continues to grow and is matched by growth in farms and market outlets. The number of farms selling shares of their harvest to local residents has tripled from 2007 to 2012. They are growing nearly 10,000 shares and feeding 40,000 people. During that same five years, the number of farmers’ markets in the region doubled. Four years ago, a winter farmers’ market was just an idea, and today, we have ongoing winter markets in Amherst, Athol, Easthampton, Greenfield, Hampden, Northampton and Springfield. We are blessed to live in a place that has such an amazing harvest all year round. We can keep these farms thriving by going to these outlets regularly and bringing friends and family.

As we look towards the New Year, we fully expect amazing and gratifying “local kernels” of new farm products and enterprises to take hold. In past years we’ve seen local popcorn, local ginger, new food coops, malt and hops for local beer, community farms, local frozen vegetables, salad greens in the winter and more. At CISA we have plans to support our beginning farmers, increase our presence in Hampden County and most importantly, to inspire and support expansion of the local food system.

We invite you to join us in the new year and put your roots down a little further into the community and embrace the Valley and its farms as your landscape and home.

Philip Korman is executive director and Margaret Christie is special projects director with Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA).