Western Massachusetts farmers till success with innovation, adaptability
In 2019, the federal government published the 2017 Agricultural Census, a massive study released every five years which provides insight into the role that agriculture plays in the state and local economy. Massachusetts farm sales totaled over $485 million, with nearly 30% of those sales occurring on farms located in the Connecticut River valley region of Franklin, Hampshire, and Hampden counties.
Adjusted for inflation, farm sales are down 8% nationally and 10% statewide since the 2012 Ag Census, but up 3% in the valley. Western Massachusetts farms are holding their own in an increasingly competitive global food system, thanks to their constant innovation and adaptability, and to the support they receive from their local and regional community.
Our corner of Massachusetts has proven to be a very desirable location for beginning farmers and other food system entrepreneurs. Twenty-seven percent of local farms have a principal producer who has been farming for 10 years or less, and 9.5% have a principal producer who is under the age of 35.
Many of these farmers grew up on local farms and have chosen to return and eventually take over the family business. In addition, our region boasts a crop of first-generation farmers who came to the valley for school, fell in love with farming during a summer job and chose to stay here to start their own farm. Others lived and worked elsewhere before choosing the valley as the ideal location for their farm business, like Alane Hartley and Russell Braen, of Park Hill Orchard in Easthampton.
Non-farmer entrepreneurs have followed this path, too. Terry and Susan Ragasa, of Sutter Meats, chose Northampton because of its proximity to skilled farmers raising quality meat and the surrounding community’s investment in supporting local food and farm businesses.
Farm and food-focused business owners choose to stay here or to build new businesses in this region because of its robust agricultural economy, and the resulting good food and lively community attracts other residents to live and work here, too. The proximity of agricultural land to urban centers, robust educational and technical support for farmers, and a strong culture of community support for local businesses all help to maintain this vibrant local food economy and shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Massachusetts farm real estate values are among the highest in the nation, averaging $10,400 per acre, compared to a national average of $3,080. Our rising minimum wage means that labor costs are high here, as well. Since the price of food isn’t any higher in Massachusetts than in neighboring states, it can be challenging for farm businesses to manage these higher costs.
Some state programs can help. For example, Massachusetts has a landmark land preservation program, and offers tax relief for agricultural land. A network of non-profits, including Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) provide training opportunities to farmers and build consumer support for local farms. These resources are dedicated to local farms because of the benefits they bring to our whole community and the unique challenges they face.
Of course, a strong local food economy doesn’t exist only because of business owners and consumers. Workers are a crucial piece of the puzzle, too. Many farm jobs are physically demanding, low-wage, and seasonal. Farm owners report that it’s challenging to fill those roles, and they struggle to balance fair wages with keeping their businesses afloat on razor-thin margins. Many of the skilled and knowledgeable people who work on local farms are disqualified from farm ownership themselves because they have no path to US citizenship. Real change to improve workplace conditions and structural inequities for workers will depend on policy solutions and an engaged community.
Our local agricultural system is special, and it enriches life here in the Connecticut River valley. It attracts entrepreneurs and offers a way forward for long-running businesses. At the same time, farms require support from local residents in order to survive.
Claire Morenon is communications manager at Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA). Visit the CISA website, buylocalfood.org, to learn more or to find local farms, winter farmers’ markets, and more near you.