The second in the MA Food System Collaborative’s discussion series focused on the challenges facing Massachusetts farmers.
Jeff Cole, agricultural network coordinator at the Collaborative, spoke about the issues that surfaced during the listening sessions the organization held over the summer. Many government programs disadvantage BIPOC communities, he said, and many programs and grant opportunities don’t explicitly mention racial equity as goals of the programs. The conversations also raised concerns about the fact that accessing farmland, including small parcels and urban land, is difficult and will continue to be a challenge until a farmland action plan is implemented to prioritize and coordinate this work. Finally, Cole said that more training, technical assistance, and research resources are needed for farmers, particularly as UMass Extension’s capacity has been diminishing.
Joy Gary from the Greater Ashmont Main Streets and Effloresce Culture & Design talked about the importance of thinking of land and its uses holistically. It is critical to remove the silos that separate farming, housing, food access, and transportation discussions from those about land use, she said. Help is needed for beginning farmers to access and own land as a way to create generational wealth, she said, adding that one way to remove barriers is to ensure that grant programs don’t exclude farmers.
Andre Tougas owns Tougas Farm, a 120-acre pick-your-own farm in Northborough that grows apples, peaches, berries, pumpkins and other items. He described the challenges of complying with COVID guidance from various public agencies. The farm reduced the number of people who could come to the farm, moved their retail store outdoors, installed hand washing stations in the orchard, and had to scramble to resolve labor issues when foreign workers were delayed. Tougas added that even during a normal year, the amount of paperwork for various agencies regarding employment, water safety, food safety, crop insurance, and other issues is excessive.
During the panel discussion and following breakout groups, many people talked about the need for more education. Farmers, especially beginning farmers, need more support from UMass Extension on topics including how to grow culturally appropriate crops and how to improve the soil. The public could benefit from more education about the racist legacy in farming and land ownership, as well as the tremendous work involved in growing food and how to cook with different produce.
Suggestions for how to make government programs more equitable included translating grant applications into multiple languages and removing matching fund requirements. Other suggestions included: streamlining regulations across departments, making zoning more amenable to farming, removing the five-acre minimum for conservation programs, increasing incentives to harvest and donate excess produce, and improving crop insurance programs.
Others noted that resources for additional infrastructure, such as micro food hubs and local slaughterhouses, would support farmers. Connecting farmers with land and better utilizing publicly-owned and institutionally-owned land would put more acreage into food production.
Due to COVID more people are purchasing locally produced food, giving all food system stakeholders an opportunity to communicate the value of local agriculture by talking about the benefits and value of local food and destigmatizing food system work.