Since the 1940’s farmland in MA has been steadily converted to other uses. From 1940 to 2017, 1,446,300 acres, 74.6% of our farmland has been lost to development, resulting in a patchwork of noncontiguous farmland and parcels of farmland and former farmland that are fewer than five acres in size.
At the same time, farming has changed in the Commonwealth. Between 1960 and 2017 the number of farms in the Commonwealth under 10 acres grew by 57% and since 1982 the number of new and beginning farmers farming under 10 acres grew by 147%. In 2017 10.2% of all farmers exclusively rented their land. Of these, 86.2% farm fewer than 10 acres.
As the Commonwealth looks to greater food system resiliency and economic growth, growing the Commonwealth’s food production capacity will require reversing the trend of farmland loss and bringing more land – much of it former farmland – into production. This will require restructuring our farmland classification and protection policies, specifically by lowering the 5-acre minimums, while ensuring that total municipal tax revenues do not decrease as a result.
Simple, direct changes in this regard can be implemented through Section 5 of Chapter 59 of the Mass General Laws, which would allow municipalities flexibility in relieving tax burdens for farmers.
Support for innovation and other resources, zoning changes, and changes to the Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program are also in order, as noted in the Local Food Action Plan. These not particularly complex but more challenging changes will also help meet these goals. Agricultural grant and land protection programs, including the new Food Security Infrastructure Grant Fund, need to proactively support farmers who farm fewer than five acres.
More complicated changes supporting these goals could come from changes to Chapter 61A, which may require changes to the state constitution, and by enacting and implementing legislation creating a more extensive and detailed statewide farmland policy.
The Collaborative is continuing our work on the need to better support farmers who steward smaller parcels of land. For those interested in learning more, or in adding to the effort, contact Jeff Cole.