State Senate Backs Farm Package

The Recorder, May 6th, 2016, by Richie Davis

Farmers markets could begin selling local farm products at state parks as part of a proposed legislative package that would also allow those parks to set aside land for community gardens.

The package, which was approved nearly unanimously in the Senate on Thursday, also loosens some of the restrictions on sale of raw milk off the farm where it’s produced, including Community Supported Agriculture operations. And it creates a fund to help veterans move into the agricultural workforce.

“Farming is more than just an industry for our small, family-owned farms across the commonwealth,” said Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst. “It’s a way of life. Farms also enhance the protection of open space and add to our robust tourism industry. This bill expands opportunities for the thousands of agricultural workers who call Massachusetts home, and increases access to healthy, locally sourced food.”

The legislation, reflecting recommendations from the Massachusetts Local Food Action Plan that was completed last December, would also allow small-scale brewers and distillers to sell products at farmers markets, just as the state’s vineyards have been allowed to do.

Rosenberg said when the bill moves to the House, he hopes it will add other recommendations of the plan created by a 17-member Massachusetts Food Policy Council co-chaired by state Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington. That initiative focused on boosting Massachusetts food production, sales and consumption, creating jobs, improving wages and skills of food workers, protecting land and water and reducing hunger and food insecurity.

The Senate package, sponsored by Sen. Anne Gobi, D-Spencer, has many of the same goals, and is a way of moving forward on more farm legislation than the Senate is otherwise able to initiate in a typical year, said Rosenberg.

“Maintaining a robust agricultural economy is the right thing to do, for our farmers, communities and the commonwealth,” said Gobi, who chairs the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture.

While the raw-milk provision — one that advocates have been pushing for years — is seen as a positive step for promoting sales of a popular product that had been restricted to on-farm sales only, Paul Lacinski of Sidehill Farm in Hawley and Clifford Hatch of Upinngil Farm in Gill agreed they may not necessarily be helped by allowing off-premise distribution, since both have established on-farm retail stores that sell a variety of products.

“We put a lot of work into getting people to come here so they can identify with the farm,” said Lacinski. “I see that as a smallish step in a positive direction.”

According to Rosenberg’s office, there are 7,755 farms in Massachusetts working on over 523,000 acres to produce $492 million in agricultural products. The state’s farms — which are 80 percent locally owned — employ nearly 28,000 workers, and 95 percent have sales under $250,000. Massachusetts ranks sixth in the nation for number of Community Supported Agriculture farms, a 95 percent increase since 2007. Over that period, the state saw agritourism sales increase by 127 percent.

At nearly $48 million, the state ranks fifth in the nation for direct market sales — which account for 10 percent of total agricultural product sales — and third in the nation for direct market sales per operation.

To help drive local food production, the bill eases regulatory restrictions that could inhibit agricultural modernization, by establishing commissions to assess the management of state-protected farmland and the agricultural plumbing code. Other changes include extending the license durations for foresting and timber harvesting.

To protect crops, the bill also establishes liability of up to three times the assessed value to anyone who causes damage or destruction to crops or agricultural property.

Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, who filed the provision to allow brewers and distillers to sell at farmers markets, said, “This legislation will give our farmers the tools needed to continue producing the quality agricultural products that people have come to expect when they see something is grown, raised or made in Massachusetts.”