State legislators secure $500K to support local farms

Daily Hampshire Gazette, By MARY BYRNE, Staff Writer, Published: 8/10/2020

SOUTH DEERFIELD — State legislators have helped secure half a million dollars in funds to support the local farming industry, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Farmers have identified new customers and new ways of doing business, and we have to make sure that we’re supporting them,” said state Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland. “And we have to make sure we’re supporting them as we go forward.”

The money is part of a supplemental spending bill Gov. Charlie Baker recently signed into law that includes $500,000 for statewide Buy Local organizations, including Deerfield-based Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA). The funding was secured through budget amendments offered by Blais and state Sen. Anne Gobi, D-Spencer.

“There are nine Buy Local organizations statewide who are charged with helping to support and grow our local farms,” said Blais. “This money will go to help them accomplish that mission.”

Blais said Buy Local organizations, which help to connect farms to their communities, have been funded in the past through state budget appropriations. However, as a result of the pandemic, there were concerns as to whether the program would be earmarked in the FY21 budget process.

“We wanted to examine every opportunity we could to provide this money for these organizations,” Blais said. “This was a great vehicle to be able to do that.”

Buy Local organizations in the Berkshires, as well as central and eastern Massachusetts, were also recognized as one of the nine to benefit from the funds.

Although the money secured doesn’t go directly to the nine organizations — instead, it goes to the state Department of Agricultural Resources where it is accessed by way of a competitive proposal process — it plays a major role in supporting organizations such as CISA, according to Phil Korman, executive director of CISA.

“It enables us to do all of the marketing for local agriculture at over 250 farms,” Korman said. “It makes it that much more possible and that much easier in the three counties — Hampshire, Hampden and Franklin counties — to know where local farms are … what stores carry locally grown products — pretty much every aspect of growing and eating.”

And the pandemic has made the availability of these funds even more important, he said, especially as farmers look to sell in different ways thanks to the closure of colleges and public schools, and the impact the pandemic has had on restaurants.

“It’s vital there’s an organization like CISA that’s letting the community know how and where and what is being sold by community farms,” Korman said. “We’ve made that tremendous task for farms slightly easier and hopefully provided a little more food security for the community.”

Korman emphasized the importance of having a food economy that’s based on local farms.

“We’re very lucky to have local farms and farmers, and farm workers who are so skilled … and I think we’re very lucky that we have elected officials like Sen. Gobi and Rep. Blais who understand the importance of local farms to the health of our communities.”