It’s that time of year again. You know, the temperature starts to climb and the days get longer. The sun begins to feel warm again and in so doing reclaims that distinctly sweet, earthy, organic smell from the ground as it heats up. The sites and smells of the forests, waterways and fields are even more pronounced in our rural areas. And then there are the farms. The farms, those fixtures in our rural landscape, with their own unique sights, sounds and smells. They serve to remind us of the old days and simpler ways.
Much more than nostalgia
Southeastern Massachusetts has lost over 50% of its farmland to development in the past 50 years. To many people, farms help to preserve our culture, history and community open space. They exist symbolically, sort of as a scene in the community rather than a living, working landscape. Farms and farmers are not always thought of in terms of the “normal” work-a-day world.
My friend Steve Smith has put it best on several occasions when I’ve heard him say, “What is missing in this nostalgic view of local agriculture is the role that these farms play in our economy, in keeping our taxes down, in preventing sprawl, and in maintaining the overall quality of life which residents of South Coast find so important.”
Truth be told, farming can’t be looked at as a stand-alone activity. Agriculture not only contributes directly to the economy in traditional ways through sales, jobs and services, but also to the secondary markets dependent upon raw materials, like food processing and value added products (cheese, yogurt, wine, sauces, jellies, ice cream, etc.).
So, what is it worth?
Fair question. According to the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) 2010 statistics, there are 2160 farms in southeastern Massachusetts (close to 1500 in Bristol and Plymouth Counties alone) working 106,628 acres to produce $146.4 million in products. The average farm produces $67,778 of product on just 48 acres of land.
Over 80% of our farms are family owned, and ownership is becoming increasingly more diverse. In the “down” economy of the past few years, agriculture has been a growth industry. While MDAR’s numbers show that we have lost additional agricultural land in the past five years, the number of farmers/farm workers has increased as has the number of small farms, community supported agriculture ventures (CSA’s) and Farmers’ Markets. New young farmers, men and women, are returning to the land in places like Westport and Dartmouth, two communities that advocate strongly for the retention of agriculture and the promotion of the business of farming.
But what types of commitments are the municipalities making?
Two recent local events signal good news on the agricultural front in the South Coast region. On January 23, Swansea voters approved the purchase of the Baker Farm on Wood Street. This 83 acre farm dates back to the 1830’s and is still producing food, and will do so for future generations through a permanent restriction dedicating it to agriculture and open space.
Swansea had lost almost half of its remaining farmland to development since 2005.
Meanwhile in Dartmouth, on January 31, the town sold the 77 acre Souza-Lagasse Farm to a young woman, reflecting its ongoing efforts to retain working farms and promote the involvement of new farmers in the community. The property contains a restriction requiring that the land be used for agricultural purposes. The town has long espoused this type of activity in its municipal planning documents and land use strategies.
But there’s more...
Although not local, you have to appreciate what communities like Amherst, Cambridge and Easthampton have done. These municipalities have adopted preferential purchasing legislation for local agricultural products for all governmental bodies, including schools, in an effort to provide fresh fruits and vegetables, promote good nutrition and support local agriculture.
“Eat Fresh, Eat Local” (haven’t we seen that in the South Coast? thanks SEMAP!). Now that’s “ag-vocacy”!
Let’s make it a South Coast trend!