Outlook 2014: CISA underscores farming and food businesses as drivers of Western Mass. economy

The Republican, February 10, 2014. By Philip Korman and Margaret Christie 

Since the beginning of the economic downturn in 2008, national conversation about the economy has focused on job creation, the level of business activity, and consumers’ willingness to spend.

Here in the Pioneer Valley, agriculture and food businesses provide an important example of a sector that enjoys widespread public support and has maintained growth through the current Great Recession.

Agriculture and related businesses provide us with essential, basic needs – food, wood for shelter and heat, and fiber for clothing. And money spent at farms and related businesses circulates locally, producing additional economic benefit.

The more our region can produce and cover its own basic needs, the more resilient our economy is, even during times of downturn.

According to the 2007 agriculture census, Franklin, Hampshire, and Hampden counties are home to 1,960 farms, stewarding 169,062 acres. These farms sold almost $9 million of agricultural products directly to consumers in 2007, twice what they did in 2002.

Our farms produce a wide array of products, including vegetables, fruit, meat, dairy products, fiber, honey, syrup, grain, and wood. They sell these products to area residents and to other businesses, including restaurants, schools and hospitals, bakeries, and producers of pickles, frozen yogurt, salad dressing, and more.

Farm businesses also support the tourism industry by stewarding our rural vistas and offering farm festivals, corn mazes, winery tastings and similar activities, attracting hundreds of thousands of residents and visitors every year.

During the Great Recession, this growth has continued.

Between 2008 and 2013, the number of farmers’ markets in our region increased 74 percent, to 47 (including seven winter markets).

The number of Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, farms grew to 49 farms feeding approximately 40,000 people.

And individual farms and businesses continue to expand.

McCray’s Farm in South Hadley has added a new dairy processing facility, and they now sell their own milk directly to customers. More businesses are making beverages using local ingredients, including wine, beer, and hard cider. The valley’s first butcher shop devoted to locally sourced meats, Sutter Meats, is opening this winter in Northampton.

Food businesses are also reinforcing their commitment to local ownership. Three local businesses – Real Pickles and Artisan Beverage Cooperative in Greenfield, and Cummington’s Old Creamery Coop – recently became cooperatives, increasing their accountability to the local community.

River Valley Market has provided a significant new outlet for locally grown products, and a new cooperative in Amherst, All Things Local, promises to increase access to local food and crafts.

In Springfield, community activism has created the real possibility of a full-line supermarket in the Mason Square neighborhood.

According to recent studies in different New England states, every dollar spent on goods grown by farmers results in additional dollars spent in the community, ranging from 65 to 82 cents more in the Pioneer Valley to $2 more in Vermont.

CISA’s local foods calculator shows consumers how their choices impact local economic health. Shifting just $5 per week to local fruits and vegetables contributes almost twice as much income to the local economy as purchasing non-local produce. In fact, if every household in Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire counties made this shift, we would see an increase of 516 jobs and add $24 million per year to the local economy.

This potential impact has forged new partnerships between those working for job creation and those interested in successful farm and food businesses. The annual Pioneer Valley Grows Spring Forum, to be held April 10 in Holyoke, will focus on the jobs created by local food businesses and the work required to improve working conditions and job quality for the people who bring us our food.

Any good chef will tell you that it’s quality ingredients which make a great meal and a great restaurant. Nothing is fresher than local, and there are now more than 50 Local Hero restaurants in the Pioneer Valley which purchase over $2 million of ingredients from our farmers. Schools, hospitals, and retirement homes are also purchasing fresh, local ingredients.

Individuals often feel powerless in a global economy and economists often suggest that our only role is to buy more consumer goods. But our everyday choices about how we feed ourselves, clothe our families and heat our homes can make a difference!

Local farms and food businesses can only succeed with our support – and rather than cluttering our homes, their products nourish our bodies and our communities.

You can make the commitment to replace some out-of-season, far-away food with locally grown. Even in winter, a wide array of locally grown products is available.

Introduce your out-of-town guests to our farms, festivals, and restaurants. Consider bringing local snacks to workplace meetings, urging your children’s school to source more local, or working with your municipal government to support new local food businesses.

Become a local food entrepreneur, or support one by investing your dollars in local farms and food businesses. We are all part of our local economy and we all benefit when we buy, sell and invest in each other.

Philip Korman is executive director and Margaret Christie is special projects director for