Outlook 2019: CISA marks 25 years of growing Local Heroes in Western Massachusetts

The Republican. February 18, 2019. Claire Morenon.

This past year, Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) celebrated 25 years of building connections between farms and the communities of Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire counties.

This landmark presented us with an opportunity to reflect on the significant changes that local agriculture has undergone in the past quarter-century and to look ahead to the challenges and opportunities we will face together in the coming years.

This reflection revealed that our region’s farmers have adapted to immense changes. Twenty-five years ago, the local agricultural land base and average farm income were falling. The regional wholesale markets that had carried the bulk of the crops, from apples to tobacco, had faltered and were being replaced by national and global wholesale chains.

One way that farmers and their advocates responded to these challenges was to create CISA and our flagship marketing campaign, Be a Local Hero, Buy Locally Grown. This effort, which uses mainstream media and marketing techniques to build broad community support for local farms, combined with the individual efforts of local farm businesses, changed the face of agriculture in the Pioneer Valley.

The inflation-adjusted value of crops sold directly to shoppers at farmers’ markets, farm stands, and through farm shares more than doubled from 4.2 million in 1992 to 10.4 million in 2012. By CISA’s count, the number of farmers’ markets in our region grew from 10 in 2001 to 38 in 2018, and the number of farms offering farm shares grew from 19 in 2006 to 53 in 2018.

As consumer interest in locally grown food has increased, many food-related businesses have emerged or adapted to meet the demand. Local farm businesses are selling their products to major grocery chains, big institutions and other large buyers, and there is still enormous potential to grow those relationships through consumer advocacy and direct support.

Specialty foods companies make a wide range of products using local ingredients, ranging from pickles to salsa to beverages. Restaurants and grocery stores proudly label local products on their menus and shelves.

Even as consumer demand has helped these local markets bloom, the fact remains that only around 15 percent of the food eaten in our region comes from local farms. Farmers are increasingly in competition for consumers’ dollars, and we’ve seen that reflected in the drop in local farmers’ markets to 36 from the peak of 49 in 2012.

Farming remains a high-risk, low-margin business, and the larger trends that spurred CISA’s creation 25 years ago have only intensified, from the consolidation of the grocery industry to cheap, imported food competing with local farmers on price.

Many of the farms in our region have built resilience into their businesses by growing a range of crops. That way, survival of the farm business doesn’t rest on the success of a single crop. Similarly, the strength of our local food system lies in having a diverse range of farm businesses, both in terms of the food and other farm products they produce, and in terms of the type and scale of their markets.

One exciting local development is the new Springfield Culinary Center, which will prepare and serve school meals to students in Springfield and Holyoke and which has a stated commitment to sourcing ingredients from local farms. This represents a major shift in the food available to students in the largest school districts in our region, and it is the result of tireless efforts led by the Springfield Food Policy Council and of progressive thinking and financial commitment from the city of Springfield and Sodexo, the food service management company that will manage the center.

Farming isn’t only about markets, though. It’s also a highly weather-dependent business, and local farmers are already directly affected by climate change. Average temperatures in Massachusetts have already increased by 3 degrees over the last 100 years, and the Fourth National Climate Assessment, released in November, included projected changes that will seriously affect local agriculture. These include: warmer winters, which can increase plant disease and pest pressure; less predictable and more extreme weather swings during seasonal transitions; and increased precipitation. As we face an unpredictable future climate, the centuries of knowledge passed down by farmers will no longer be relevant to future planning.

Farmers are highly adaptable, and they have successfully weathered major shifts over the decades, and this resilience bodes well for the health of our local food system. Their hard work must be buoyed by community support and resources aimed at helping them adapt to changing markets and a changing climate.

Claire Morenon is communications manager at Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA). To learn more about CISA and its work, go online to buylocalfood.org.

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