Green and Growing
by Scott J. Soares, Commissioner
Cultivation of crops has been an inherent part of our civilization for 10,000 years. From that perspective farming has a "been there, done that" quality that contrasts the "awe factor" I have regularly encountered when I give presentations about what's best described as an agricultural renaissance throughout Massachusetts. Many audience members have commented that they were never aware of the broad and important impacts of agriculture in their own communities. Nothing could better reflect this realization than the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources going from proverbial state agency wallflower to sunflower. We've taken down the silos that separated our four key divisions-Agricultural Development, Animal Heath, Crop & Pest Services and Agricultural Technical Assistance-and all have been working at maximum-plus capacity to keep pace with the positive agricultural trends we are experiencing across the state.
What are those trends? Of perhaps most significance is the 27% growth of both crop and livestock farms between 2002 and 2007 reported by the USDA agricultural census that was released in 2009. That's nearly 7,700 farms providing locally grown food and other agricultural products to Massachusetts residents from more than half a million acres of working landscapes that provide aesthetic enjoyment and positive economic impact to the tune of nearly $500 million in farm revenue alone annually.
Another very important indicator is the recent leveling off of the loss of farmland acres or conversion to non-farm uses. Case in point: Between 1987 and 2002 we lost 155,000 acres of farmland; that's 10,000 acres per year or 27 acres every day. However, between 2002 and 2007 we lost in total only 650 acres; that's 130 acres per year, an amount that we were previously losing every five days!
With farmland value and land generally at a premium in Massachusetts, other trends include the exploration of non typical environments that support agriculture. Urban rooftop gardens, community school gardens, urban gardens embedded within cityscapes and greenhouses powered by alternative renewable energy systems are new venues for "agri-preneurs" looking to provide locally grown products to the growing number of consumers who are keenly interested in knowing from where their food comes, how it is handled and, importantly, how it was grown.
This consumer interest reflects a broader nationwide trend.The question then becomes how a small state like Massachusetts can maintain its agricultural identity amidst often confusing claims about what "local" actually means. For some, local may mean how fast you can get the product to market, such as within 24 hours (even if it takes a plane to get it there!). For others local may mean a drive up from another New England state and for still others from within their own community.
There are other challenges Massachusetts farmers face: Our dairy industry continues to reel from the effects of sustained low milk prices and high production costs. Laws and municipal ordinances and regulations relative to agriculture can reflect an era long gone and hence not particularly adaptive to our efforts to develop local and regional food systems. Clashes between non-agricultural communities and farming operations persist. And finally, challenges to preserve the remaining acres of our working landscapes remain. To the latter it will be interesting to see if as the economy picks up, we'll be able to maintain the gains we have made as the temptation increases for farmers to sell their land at high market prices.
In spite of these challenges, I feel very confident that we are on the right path. First and foremost is my belief that consumer demand for locally grown has transcended the fad phase to become an integral facet of our expectations vis-a-vis food and appropriate food systems. Our entrepreneurial farmers in the Bay State are doing a great job at diversifying and differentiating themselves to meet market demands for local product. From artisan cheeses to award-winning wines, and from farmers markets to CSAs, roadside farm stands and new "agritourism" activities, the agricultural community is making its mark and redefining our Commonwealth's agricultural identity.
To date we have permanently preserved 64,000 acres of farmland through our Agriculture Preservation Restriction (APR) program and continue to make progress coupled with the efforts of various land trusts and agricultural support organizations. New partnerships at the local, state and federal level are also having a positive effect on the agricultural industry's ability to establish clear guidelines around food safety, animal health measures and fulfilling agriculture's role in energy conservation and production.
On the MDAR front, we are embracing new means of outreach that take advantage of today's communication technology, such as blogging and tweeting, to get the word out to new audiences about the importance of a strong agricultural ecosystem. As an example, we have been working with commodity groups to promote MassGrown & Fresher at www.mass.gov/agr/massgrown. This consumer gateway features a Google mapping tool that that makes it easy for folks to find farms, farmers markets, nurseries and agri-tourism destinations with just a click of the mouse.
We will also soon be launching the Seal of Commonwealth Quality maintain the highest quality while observing environmental and safety standards. And finally, a New England regional initiative to jumpstart a program called Keep Local Farms is gaining ground to help both Massachusetts and New England dairy farms.
One of my favorite quotes comes from the American Farmland Trust, which says simply: "No Farms, No Food." I look forward to continuing our great efforts to ensure Massachusetts has plenty!
Scott Soares' agricultural roots go back to his childhood, when his family enjoyed noncommercial, small-scale farming including vegetables and livestock in southeastern Massachusetts. Many daily farm chores later, Scott's real appreciation for agriculture came to fruition following his graduation cum laude from the University of Dartmouth with a double major in Biology and marine biology and graduate training at the University of Rhode Island. He started his work in Westport, Massachusetts, using bay scallop aquaculture to restore shellfish populations. In 1996 Scott started working for the Department of Agricultural Resources as the Commonwealth's first aquaculture coordinator and began his work with the industry to build a program for the promotion and development of this diverse segment of the Massachusetts agriculture industry. It required that he work across a broad spectrum of constituencies, from conservationists to industry advocates. The key lesson he learned is that working to build strong partnerships at the local, state and federal levels ensures success towards long-term sustainability. Since his appointment as Commissioner in April 2009, Scott has continued to bring often nontraditional groups together to find solutions that serve to enhance the Commonwealth's agricultural future. Commissioner Soares can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AgCommishSoares.