As they are in most sectors of our economy, regulations are a necessary part of farming. Well-crafted and reasonable farm regulations protect the environment, workers, public health, and other community interests. They help create a level economic playing field. The agriculture regulatory system includes provisions and requirements that pertain to many aspects of farming, including – but not limited to – food safety, air quality, water quality, public safety, siting, taxes, land use, and labor.
Yet in Massachusetts, the regulatory system for agriculture at the State and local levels is not as effective or efficient as it should be. Funding for development, research, public engagement, and enforcement of regulations has been reduced. Also, our State’s tradition of “Home Rule” local government by its 351 individual cities and towns – and the lack of virtually any county government – has led to wide variation in the education, expertise, and capacity of local regulators. For example, there are currently no educational or training requirements for local public health workers, nor are there accreditation requirements for local boards of health and health departments. Regionalization of public health services and regulations, which holds promise to increase capacity and expertise, is voluntary and has been successfully pursued in a few areas; opportunities for training and working across sectors are growing, but are still limited.
As a result, there is a considerable subset of regulations pertaining to agriculture that are in need of review and revision. Some are outdated and have not been revised to reflect modern agricultural practices or current science. In some cases, there are simply more regulations than warranted, often the result of blanket solutions that stemmed from overreaction to isolated incidents. Robust and timely stakeholder engagement to produce effective regulations does not happen often enough. And in some cases, ineffective or irrelevant regulations that are not based in agricultural science wind up getting implemented. These can outstrip the capacity of farmers to comply, resulting in financial losses. Farmers often can’t absorb all the costs of complying with new regulations without additional education and technical assistance.
At the municipal level, local officials in Massachusetts are responsible for implementing and enforcing a complex array of State and local regulations that pertain to land, the environment, and public health. In small towns in particular, the volunteer boards and part-time professional staff who are responsible for overseeing compliance are often not well-prepared to address agricultural issues that come before them without additional technical assistance and education. And farms that do business in more than one town often find themselves trying to comply with different regulations in each community.
In addition to the structural issues cited above, there are two specific regulatory concerns that merit immediate attention. First, many State and federal farm labor regulations that protect farmworkers’ safety and rights are complex and challenging to navigate, and thus unduly interfere with the ability of farmers to hire and manage an effective workforce, even though many farmers support the intent and often exceed the requirements of such regulations. And secondly, regulations related to meat processing have been a deterrent to growth for livestock farmers Massachusetts, even as demand for local meat is rising.