State agricultural commissioner John Lebeaux makes first official Pioneer Valley appearance

NORTHAMPTON — Though the number might seem small, newly-appointed state agricultural commissioner John Lebeaux said a recent 1 percent increase in the number of farms in the Valley is a “trend in the right direction.”

In his first official swing through the region as agricultural chief, Lebeaux spent Friday night with about 100 farmers, food producers and others with stakes in the local food industry who gathered at the Northampton Senior Center for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture’s annual meeting. CISA encourages people to “Buy Local,” an aim to engage people in strengthening the local economy.

Though the populations of Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden counties pale in comparison to the metro-Boston area, Lebeaux said the region is important to the state’s economy.

According to 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture data, the most recent year for which figures were available, the 1 percent increase in farms accounted for an 8 percent rise in total acreage of farmland in the Valley since 2007. Of the state’s total farmland acreage, 35 percent is located in those counties.

Lebeaux said those figures are a result of the work done by groups like CISA. Founded in 1993, the South Deerfield group was the first of its kind in the state.

“Buy Local initiatives have helped generate consumer demand for locally grown food,” Lebeaux told the gathering.

In his view, consumers’ desire to know where their food comes from is not just a trend. “It’s a basic tenet of consumer purchasing,” he said. “They want to meet the grower, they want to connect with the producer.”

Lebeaux was sworn in by Gov. Charlie Baker in February as commissioner of the Department of Agricultural Resources. He operated the nursery business founded by his grandfather in his hometown of Shrewsbury until about five years ago. He serves on the Shrewsbury Select Board, and served nine years on the state Board of Food and Agriculture.

He said the Baker administration aims to expand opportunities for farmers and food producers and “provide them with reasonable and fair regulatory market,” which he hopes will increase sales and profits, ultimately leading to job creation.

In an interview after his remarks, Lebeaux said western Massachusetts faces unique barriers compared to other areas.

“Western Mass has the great acreage to produce, it doesn’t obviously have the population base that Eastern Mass has,” he said.

He’d like to work to open up avenues for local farmers to sell their products, pointing to the Boston Public Market as a solution. The year-round farmer’s market is set to open in July in the populated state capital. He said Valley farmers are already planning on selling goods at the venue, which boasts 28,000 square feet of retail space.

Lebeaux credited the growth in western Massachusetts farming to the increased interest in the trade by younger people, and a drive towards “value-added” products — prepared foods made with locally sourced ingredients.

He cited Valley-favorite maple syrup sugar houses, which typically serve pancakes as a carrier for locally-produced maple syrup, as an example.

“The Massachusetts farmer has to be pretty clever and innovative,” he said. “A lot of people are interested in knowing where their food comes from … they’re willing to pay for that.”

Lebeaux said his department’s upcoming budget includes $300,000 to help fund the Buy Local campaigns of CISA and nine other groups like it across the state.

In the upcoming year, Philip Korman, CISA’s executive director, said his organization aims to expand its efforts to make local food attainable for all people. One example is a program to match money spent by people using food stamp benefits at farmer’s markets.

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“It’s a win-win,” he said. “Farmers can continue to charge what they need to charge and people that don’t have the purchasing power can have access to that food.”

For example, someone spending $5 on their EBT card, formerly known as food stamps, will be able to buy $10 worth of food.

He said the group is also looking at other barriers preventing EBT customers from buying local, like transportation issues.