Municipal agricultural commissions have a new role to play, thanks to an amendment to the law that gives local boards of health their authority, which was enacted earlier this year. Local boards of health must now submit any new regulation that impacts agriculture to the agricultural commission, should it exist, for review before it can be enacted, except in emergency situations. This new law is the result of years of conversations and advocacy by farming organizations, public health organizations, and state agencies. The goal is to foster collaboration that helps keep our food supply safe and farmers in business.
This new law represents growing authority and responsibilities for agricultural commissions, which were also recently granted the power to hold land, receive funds, expend funds placed into an agricultural preservation fund, and research and prepare agricultural-related plans, including a comprehensive local agricultural land plan, when MGL ch 40, section 8L was enacted.
But only about 40% of Massachusetts cities and towns have taken advantage of the opportunity to establish agricultural commissions. Some that have established them in their bylaws don’t have active bodies, with no volunteers stepping up to participate. And where there are active agricultural commissions, participation by farmers is uneven, with non-farmers filling these increasingly important roles.
There are numerous opportunities for farmers to help ensure that their municipalities support agriculture. Joining agricultural commissions, boards of health, planning and zoning boards, and other municipal bodies, is a way for farmers to help ensure that local rulemaking supports not only themselves, but all farms in their community. In most instances it’s only a few hours a month of commitment, with meetings usually held in the evenings.
The demand for rural housing created by the COVID pandemic and resulting fostering of remote work, as well as the predicted population migration away from coastal cities due to climate change, is resulting in development pressures that will impact municipal land use and other decisions. Those decisions can be supportive of agriculture, or they can be harmful. Farmer involvement in municipal government is critical to local agriculture’s survival, as well as to our food supply.
For those interested, the first step is to contact town or city hall and find out if an agricultural commission has been established. If it has, is it active, when does it meet, and who are the members? If there are vacancies, how can you get appointed? Remember that, as a public body, a municipal agricultural commission’s meetings must be public and allow for public input, so even if there are no vacancies, attending meetings and offering feedback is a way to participate.
If no agricultural commission exists, consider talking with other farmers in your town about establishing one. Contact the Massachusetts Association of Agricultural Commissions for support in this process.