News

 January 27, 2021

Moving a State Farmland Action Plan Forward

 

For Massachusetts farmers to feed the Commonwealth, land must be available and affordable.  There are a number of laws, programs, regulations, and an executive order seeking to maintain our agricultural land base, but they do not coordinate, or do not coordinate well with each other, leading to , reduced effectiveness, economic and administrative inefficiency, and continued loss of farmland.  

Between 2012 and 2017 an average of 122 acres a week, or about 2 farms of the state average size, were taken out of production. The vast majority of this land has been permanently removed from agricultural use making the competition for remaining land intense and farm operations less sustainable due to increasing land values. In fact, the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture shows that Massachusetts is one of just four states where farm average income is less than expenses, resulting in farms losing money in their operations.

Five years ago, the MA Local Food Action Plan recommended that the Commonwealth develop a State farmland action plan. Both during the development of the Plan and in 2020 listening sessions focused on our local food system responses to COVID, farmers consistently report that availability of and access to farmland is one of the key barriers to their success. Stakeholders agreed that the absence of clear goals on the part of the State was a barrier to policy and action that could address these concerns, and so proposed that such a Plan:

  • improve State data collection around farmland;
  • establish a statewide baseline of land in active agricultural production;
  • set measurable goals and benchmarks related to farmland protection, retention, and access; and 
  • recommend State program spending levels to meet those goals and benchmarks.

Such coordination will generate results far greater than individual efforts can, and should build upon the work of recent initiatives like the Rural Policy Plan and the Rural Lands Initiative, as well as recommendations made in the Food Plan. The effort would develop an analysis of a wide range of long-standing farmland initiatives to form a coherent and effective farmland plan in order to meet the needs and challenges of providing a secure and safe local food supply for the Commonwealth is in place. Elements to consider include:

  • Article 97 of the State Constitution, which establishes the rights of Commonwealth residents to natural resources, including agriculture, and authorizes the state to purchase land to protect those rights.
  • Governor Edward King’s 1981 Executive order No. 193, which requires state agencies to avoid unnecessary conversion of agricultural land.
  • The Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act, which seeks to ensure that the environmental impacts from development projects requiring state approvals are identified and “all feasible” action is taken to avoid or minimize damage to the environment.
  • The Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act, enacted in 2008, which sets greenhouse gas emission reduction goals for Massachusetts and has been the basis for much of the additional climate change legislation as well as state administrative policy, programs, regulation, and action. (For example The Massachusetts Clean Energy and Environment Plan).
  • The Municipal Vulnerability Program, which sets goals and provides funding to municipalities to address state priority climate adaptation actions resulting from extreme weather, sea level rise, inland and coastal flooding, and other climate impacts.
  • MDAR’s Agricultural Land Mitigation Policy, which was prescribed by Governor Swift and established that it is the mission of the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs and the Department of Food and Agriculture to protect, preserve, and enhance agricultural land, in part by requiring the permanent protection of one acre of agricultural land for every acre of agricultural land converted out of agriculture. 
  • The Agricultural Preservation Restriction program, which purchases the development rights of farmland and permanently protects the land for agricultural use.
  • Massachusetts General Law Chapter 30 Section 61, which requires all agencies, departments, boards, commissions and authorities of the commonwealth to evaluate, and determine the impact on the environment of all activities conducted by them and to use all practicable means to minimize damage to the environment.
  • Massachusetts General Law Chapter 61A, which reduces property tax burdens on agricultural land without lowering total property tax revenue for cities & towns.
  • Massachusetts General Law Chapter 128 Section 7A-F, which requires that the state make suitable vacant public land available for garden, arbor, or farm purposes.
  • The Community Preservation Act, which provides funds to municipalities to purchase properties or easements to protect the property from development. 
  • Land trust programs that work to protect land for agricultural use
  • Transfer of Development Rights, which can provide resources to protect land for agricultural purposes in conjunction with or outside of the APR program.
  • Land conservation commissions and programs that protect land from development and with adjustments (in some cases) could provide use of that land for agricultural purposes.
  • The Massachusetts Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which could be revitalized and could help apply equity principles to the state’s farmland policy and investments.

What is needed to move a farmland plan forward is legislative and administrative action, resources to fund the project, and a commitment to an engagement process that includes farmers and other key stakeholders. The legislature has acted twice to advance a farmland plan - once as an item in the 2017 budget, an item that was ultimately vetoed by Governor Baker, and once as an allowable program for capital spending in the 2018 environmental bond bill, though those resources have not yet been made available by the Governor. Legislation that would formally begin development of a plan has been filed in the last two sessions and will be refiled again in February.

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