McGovern Leads State, Federal Officials on Farm Tour of Western Massachusetts

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, August 24th, 2015, by David Eisenstadter

Congressman James McGovern, D-Worcester, kicked off a two-day western Massachusetts farm tour Monday, visiting the North Hadley Sugar Shack and Simple Gifts Farm in North Amherst, along with five others.

“Agriculture is an important part of our economy and I’m interested in seeing farmers succeed,” McGovern, who sits on the House Agriculture Committee, said Monday.

Joe Boisvert, who owns the Sugar Shack with his wife, Shelly Boisvert, took McGovern and nearly a dozen staffers and state and federal officials around the facility.

Boisvert got state grant money for a high-efficiency wood-fired evaporator and also recently purchased a reverse-osmosis machine, both of which make it possible for him to make maple syrup more efficiently.

He said he has seen huge savings in both electricity and wood costs. Burning wood to boil sap is part of the New England tradition of syrup-making, he said, and those two machines have allowed him to reduce the wood he burns by more than 50 percent.
“I didn’t believe it when they sold it to us, but it’s all there and then some,” he said.

Tens of thousands of people come through the Boisverts’ farm during the peak of sugaring season, with people at times waiting 2 to 3 hours to get breakfast there on the weekends, he said.

Beyond syrup, and the pancakes that go along with it, the Boisverts raise beef cows, produce and sell flowers and operate a recently opened market that sells what they grow and serves lunch.

Boisvert said the high-efficiency wood-fired evaporator in particular has helped him stay competitive with his syrup. He had it installed three years ago, he said. It works by forcing unburned wood gas back into the evaporator, meaning that less wood has to be fed into the device.

“It’s like, 35 minutes goes by and we don’t have to put wood in,” he said. “It’s really a positive thing for our maple production and our family farm and it has boosted the number of taps we can do.”

They have more than 5,000, he said.

The reverse osmosis machine increases the sugar level in the sap from 2 percent to 14 percent, separating lighter water molecules from the heavier sugar molecules, he said.

The syrup operation started with Boisvert and his brother boiling sap in front of people while they ate breakfast, but they worried that one day a child would run unsupervised into some of the boiling machinery. They moved the operation out of the dining area and grew from there, he said.

Outside, the farm has a place for children to meet with the animals and even play nine holes of mini golf.

“It’s not any kind of Walt Disney World by any means, but it lets kids see animals,” he said.
Boisvert said his location on Route 47 in Hadley is beneficial because it is a scenic route people drive on during the fall, and Hadley in general is a good place to be a farmer.

“The farmers in Hadley are always supportive,” he said. “Hadley was built because of farmers and people recognize that still and support it.”

At Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst, owners Jeremy Barker Plotkin and David Tepfer talked with McGovern about their year-round community supported agriculture farm-share program and their farm internship program.

Barker Plotkin said he and Tepfer did not have to purchase their land, which is owned by North Amherst Community Farm, a nonprofit organization devoted to preserving farmland and promoting sustainable farming practices.

“The way that we market our produce is very intentionally putting people in touch with their food supply,” he said, adding that about 70 percent of their business comes from their vegetables.

They grow organically, but they also involve their farm animals in a soil program that uses the animal fertilizer.

Simple Gifts also pays farm interns to come and learn about organic farming practices. Katie Campbell-Nelson, a University of Massachusetts Amherst Extension educator, was present during Monday’s presentation and works with the interns on pest management practices, she said.

She has also done walks around the farm with agricultural pest diagnostic experts.

“Correctly identifying diseases and pests is a really important first step because sometimes farmers will act on treating a pest before knowing what it is, so it is important first to get it diagnosed,” she said.

The farm business owners have gotten grants from state and federal organizations, but Barker Plotkin said he and Tepfer still carry a heavy debt load. They had to borrow to install greenhouses and freezer space and other major equipment.

“That’s a hurdle for people getting into the business,” he said, adding that the interns who work with them often bring that up as well.

McGovern said he was glad that the farm’s customers were able to visit the farm to see the operation and that the farm donates to local organizations like the Amherst Survival Center.

“What a great gift to the community that you guys are here and that they have access to locally grown tomatoes and vegetables year-round,” he said.

Speaking later in the day at the Atlas Farm stand on Routes 5 and 10 in Deerfield, McGovern said what he’d learned so far from the tour is how innovative and hard-working farmers in the district are. He called for creating sustainable agricultural economies in all 50 states, and encouraging support of local, independent farms.

“The Pioneer Valley is clearly a trailblazer on this issue” of sustainable farming, McGovern told The Recorder. “The people who do this really love it. They work really hard, and at the end of the day they get to point to something they’ve produced. In Congress, we can work a whole week and I sometimes can’t point to anything we’ve accomplished. I’m kind of envious …”

Material from The Recorder was included in this report.