State and federal agriculture officials tour farms in the Pioneer Valley

The Republican. August 19. 2014. By Fred Contrada.

NORTHAMPTON — To be on tour Tuesday with the agriculture big-wigs, it would help to know what a sunchoke is, though it is not essential.

A sunchoke is a potato-like root that can be cut up and put in soups. It looks like a bunch of knuckles without the skin. There are sunchoke galore at River Valley Market.

The Northampton coop happened to be one of the stops on a three-day tour of the Pioneer Valley that will hit 16 farms and various agriculture-related business such as the coop and Valley Malt, a Hadley operation that cultivates malts for fine beers.

Among the luminaries on tour Tuesday were Edward Avalos, Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Massachusetts congressman James McGovern, D-Worcester, and state representatives Peter Kocot and John Scibak.

The stop at River Valley Market included a lunch prepared mainly with local produce and a dessert of cobbler and Bart’s ice cream. As an appetizer, Dorian Gregory, the chairwoman of the coop, told how River Valley started six years ago with a membership of 2,000 and an investment of $300,000 and has grown since. This, Gregory said, has been due in large part to the coop’s relationship with local farmers.

Gary Shaefer and Barbara Fingold, who started Bart’s, pitched in with anecdotes about their partnership with River Valley, which has more varieties of their ice cream than any other outlet, they said.

From there the entourage drove to Szawlowski Potato Farms in Hatfield, where they got a view of cultivating and packaging potatoes from the ground up. Shell Szawlowski told the group that the key to success in 2014 is specialization.

Avalos said he liked what he saw in Massachusetts, and compared the farmland he has seen to that in the northern part of his home state of New Mexico. He added that the emphasis on local products dovetails nicely with the goals of the Obama Administration.

“There’s a lot of family pride here,” Avalos said, adding that the Obama administration is focused to stimulating local economies.

McGovern, who grew up in Worcester, said he has visited farms before, but never so many in so short a time.

“It’s an important learning lesson,” he said.

After lunch, he even joined River Valley Market.

“I want to thank you guys for what you have done here,” he told coop officials, “and for making it contagious across the state.”