Where will our food come from?

June 14, 2013
The Recorder
Richie Davis

With completion of a “Sustainable Franklin County” plan that calls for the region to protect farmland and expand local food supplies, a new $74,000 grant will advance “strategic food system planning” over the next year to help build “a resilient regional food system.”

The grant came from the Henry P. Kendall Foundation, a Boston-based organization that funds projects supporting healthy food systems around the region as well as increased production and consumption of local, sustainably produced food.

Over the next year and a half, the planning effort by the Franklin Regional Council of Governments will build upon New England Food Vision 2060, a study that found the six-state region could produce 80 percent of its own food — the bulk of its own vegetables as well as about half of its fruit, from which it could also derive much of its own beverages, along with most of its own dairy products and most of its own lamb and beef, plus its own chicken, turkey, pork, and eggs and some grains.

The COG study will also make use of a 2012 Franklin County Farmland and Foodshed study by the Conway School of Landscape Design, which recommends that the county can achieve “self-reliance” in feeding itself by focusing on what we already grow well on 34,000 acres of farmland.

“We’ve had a longstanding interest in farmland protection, and this seemed like a logical next step in terms of looking at the overall food system,” said the COG’s planning director, Margaret Sloan. “The goal is to advance production of local food for local consumption. We’re going to begin to look at ways of improving the ability to have food that’s produced in the region stay in the region, and to increase production of local food.”

Working with organizations like Deerfield-based Communities Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, Orange-based Seeds of Solidarity, and the Franklin County Community Development Corp., county planners will consider the need of farms for greater storage facilities, processing capacity and transportation capabilities, with the aim of seeing if there are ways to build in greater efficiencies or cooperative efforts.

The COG plans on making recommendations for infrastructure projects and locations, along with identifying potential partners, community collaborations, and funding possibilities.

The CDC, which operates the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center in Greenfield, has received federal funding to expand its freezer storage capabilities as part of an effort to encourage greater sales of locally grown produce to schools and other institutions.

The CDC and CISA, as well as farmers, town agriculture commissions, Community Action and land trusts, will be represented on an advisory board overseeing the COG study, said Sloan.

Among issues that form the backdrop to the study are the expected continued rise in cost of fossil fuels, which will likely affect the future cost and availability of food imported from across the country and around the world, as well as the lack of access to healthful, locally grown food by low-income people who can’t easily get to farmers markets, farmstands or supermarkets where it’s sold.

The strategic plan makes recommendations for siting potential local, fresh-food retail and farmers markets locations, identifying local and regional barriers to doing so and dovetails with the state’s “Mass. in Motion Healthy Market Program” to get markets and convenience stores providing more healthy food options to customers.

Pointing to the Neighbors convenience store in Ashfield, which has a fresh produce table outside its entrance in summer, Sloan said, “It would be great if more local convenience stores offered that.”

Although much of the food grown in Franklin County will travel to whatever markets offer farmers the greatest return, she said part of the strategic plan is aimed at “‘providing opportunities for it to stay in the region by making more of those connections between farmers and local restaurants, schools and other institutions. That means working with farmers to identify those who are interested and working to make that happen.”

The COG’s sustainable master plan, in which 84 percent of people attending workshops pointed to farmland protection as their top natural resource priority, is scheduled to be approved by the regional Planning Board later this summer.

Working with volunteers, the COG will conduct on-farm interviews with farmers to focus on infrastructure needs, land assets, current production, and interest in growing new crops as well as connecting to new local markets.

The COG also plans to work with Massachusetts food policy groups and other planning agencies to identify potential regional projects and collaboration possibilities.