October 23, 2019
The Collaborative joined many other stakeholder groups in providing recommendations for the Rural and Working Lands and Climate Change and Resiliency groups that led to the recently released Rural Policy Plan (RPP). There are many important parallels with the Massachusetts Local Food Action Plan (MLFAP), and a number of specific recommendations that are similar or nearly identical.
Both plans call for more informational and educational resources, technical assistance, regulatory review and reform, targeted financial support and economic development strategies for rural sectors, increasing capacity by service sharing models, upgrading infrastructure, and addressing the impacts of climate change by enhancing the capacity of rural lands to provide solutions.
One of the top priorities of the Rural Policy Plan is to develop a statewide land use plan and growth management strategy that promotes the unique functions of each land use type, interconnection of varying land uses throughout the state and integrates with other plans, such as the Healthy Soils Action Plan and Resilient Lands Initiative. This is strikingly similar to the MLFAP recommendation to develop a formal state farmland action plan that considers regional land use plans undertaken by various regional planning agencies and any available assessments, modeling or scenario planning that predicts future land use patterns, needs or threats.
Other similarities include:
Zoning: The RPP notes a disconnect between local zoning bylaws and state incentives to accomplish statewide goals, such as moving to clean energy, and that zoning bylaws are out of date in many communities. It recommends revisions to foster smart growth and low impact development. The MLFAP recommends protecting land with a range of tools that sustain viable operations designed to keep farmers on their land: reducing tax burdens, encouraging municipal bylaws that help keep farmers on their land, and reviewing State policies and incentives around renewable alternative energy (e.g. solar) development to better harmonize goals for renewable energy and natural resource protection.
The RPP recommends correcting an oversight in the Chapter 61 program that makes large landowners pay rollback taxes on an entire land tract when seeking to move a portion of it into permanent protection in the context of a cluster development project. The MLFAP recommends reducing municipal tax burden on farms and other taxes during land transfer, educating municipal planning boards and agricultural commissions about the use of Conservation Subdivision/Natural Resources Protection Zoning and accessory apartment bylaws as tools to promote compact development, and providing technical support to communities seeking to adopt and use these zoning tools. The RPP seeks to promote diversity in housing stock so that older homeowners can comfortably downsize, freeing up single family homes for young people and the MLFAP seeks the ability of farmers to live within reasonable proximity to their farm and providing technical assistance to town community preservation committees, agricultural commissions, and land trusts to foster affordable housing associated with protecting farmland.
UMass Extension: The RPP recommend significantly expanded UMass technical assistance services for farms and forests by supporting county conservation districts, or other approaches.
The MLFAP recommends building UMass Extension’s capacity to provide needed education and technical assistance targeted to the needs of the industry.
Climate change: The RPP seeks to prioritize policies that address farmland and fishery adaptation to climate change and new market conditions, increased engagement of farmers and foresters in Municipal Vulnerability Program work and nature-based solutions and ecosystem services provided by rural lands ensuring carbon reduction policies explicitly include rural assets like working farms.
The MLFAP seeks increased technical assistance to farmers around crop and livestock climate change adaptation strategies, encouraging sustainable fishing practices that protect fish and shellfish stock and habitat, and expanding carbon credits and water quality credits to provide additional revenue sources for farmers while protecting the environment.
Workforce development: The RPP seeks to foster greater collaboration among public education and training institutions, investment in program development and staffing of training programs that connect regional workforce boards, career centers, community colleges, and technical high schools and expanding funding for vocational education. The MLFAP seeks to engage community colleges, regional employment boards, community development agencies, and other such entities to encourage the development of food processing workforce training programs and increased funding and support for vocational and agricultural high school training programs, as well as community college hands-on agricultural programs.
The RPP recommends revising prevailing wage law to allow wage rates more geographically sensitive so that rural areas are not saddled with urban wage rates. The MLFAP recommends addressing outdated and confusing regulations concerning agricultural labor to better meet the needs of Massachusetts farm businesses while protecting the well-being and security of agricultural workers.
Municipal collaboration and combining of services: The RPP seeks to facilitate and reward regional solutions to local challenges by encouraging municipal service sharing through funding and other incentives, cross-jurisdictional sharing of local health department functions and adopting the Special Commission on Local and Regional Health’s Workforce Credential Standards, and the State Action for Public Health Excellence (SAPHE) program.
The MLFAP recommends credentialing of the local public health workforce, accreditation of local health departments, and regionalization of local public health services and regulations, and increasing ongoing training of local and state regulators.
These parallel recommendations indicate ongoing need and support for critical food system issues. The Collaborative hopes that the completion of the RPP brings renewed attention to these issues, and looks forward to working with stakeholders, policymakers, public agencies, and other institutions to address them.