As they are in most sectors of our economy, regulations are a necessary part of farming. Well-crafted and reasonable farm regulations protect the environment, workers, public health, and other community interests. They help create a level economic playing field. The agriculture regulatory system includes provisions and requirements that pertain to many aspects of farming, including – but not limited to – food safety, air quality, water quality, public safety, siting, taxes, land use, and labor.
Yet in Massachusetts, the regulatory system for agriculture at the State and local levels is not as effective or efficient as it should be. Funding for development, research, public engagement, and enforcement of regulations has been reduced. Also, our State’s tradition of “Home Rule” local government by its 351 individual cities and towns – and the lack of virtually any county government – has led to wide variation in the education, expertise, and capacity of local regulators. For example, there are currently no educational or training requirements for local public health workers, nor are there accreditation requirements for local boards of health and health departments. Regionalization of public health services and regulations, which holds promise to increase capacity and expertise, is voluntary and has been successfully pursued in a few areas; opportunities for training and working across sectors are growing, but are still limited.
As a result, there is a considerable subset of regulations pertaining to agriculture that are in need of review and revision. Some are outdated and have not been revised to reflect modern agricultural practices or current science. In some cases, there are simply more regulations than warranted, often the result of blanket solutions that stemmed from overreaction to isolated incidents. Robust and timely stakeholder engagement to produce effective regulations does not happen often enough. And in some cases, ineffective or irrelevant regulations that are not based in agricultural science wind up getting implemented. These can outstrip the capacity of farmers to comply, resulting in financial losses. Farmers often can’t absorb all the costs of complying with new regulations without additional education and technical assistance.
At the municipal level, local officials in Massachusetts are responsible for implementing and enforcing a complex array of State and local regulations that pertain to land, the environment, and public health. In small towns in particular, the volunteer boards and part-time professional staff who are responsible for overseeing compliance are often not well-prepared to address agricultural issues that come before them without additional technical assistance and education. And farms that do business in more than one town often find themselves trying to comply with different regulations in each community.
In addition to the structural issues cited above, there are two specific regulatory concerns that merit immediate attention. First, many State and federal farm labor regulations that protect farmworkers’ safety and rights are complex and challenging to navigate, and thus unduly interfere with the ability of farmers to hire and manage an effective workforce, even though many farmers support the intent and often exceed the requirements of such regulations. And secondly, regulations related to meat processing have been a deterrent to growth for livestock farmers Massachusetts, even as demand for local meat is rising.
Recommendation 2.1: Create a regulatory system that does not outpace the capacity of the agricultural community to comply.
Action 2.1.1: As new regulations or revisions to existing ones are considered, regulators should work directly with stakeholders, including providers of technical, educational, and financial assistance, to produce a consensus draft of new regulations prior to their release for review by the general public. Regulators and stakeholders should work together to craft regulations that are based on farming practices that are currently achievable; identify how these practices can be improved over time; and develop processes for making such improvements, such as allowing for extended phase-in periods, and providing education and technical assistance.
Action 2.1.2: Ensure that regulatory processes are transparent; that they operate in a timely and predictable fashion; and that they are appropriate to the size of the farm being regulated.
Action 2.1.3: Train and manage regulators to enforce regulations consistently, and to offer technical assistance to farmers so that compliance concerns can be remedied quickly. Ensure that regulators who conduct on-site farm inspections are well-versed in farming issues and are able to understand and address specific concerns found on one farm in a broader context.
Action 2.1.4: Establish a circuit rider program at MDAR with staff who can visit farms in a non-enforcement capacity to explain regulations and programs available through the department that may aid with compliance.
Action 2.1.5: Review regulations at least every ten years to ensure that the standards they set match the reality of current agricultural practices and needs and other concerns.
Action 2.1.6: Facilitate improved communication among agencies and stakeholders with a focus on balancing regulations and farm viability.
Recommendation 2.2: Review and revise State regulations hindering farms’ viability.
Action 2.2.1: Review all State programs, regulations, and laws relevant to farming that include a definition of farming or agriculture and, where possible, establish common definitions as the basis for a consistent and understandable set of rules for farmers to follow.
Action 2.2.2: Engage farmers and other relevant stakeholders in a review of nutrient management regulations; update as needed.
Action 2.2.3: Establish a State livestock care and standards board to ensure that livestock is treated humanely, and that State requirements are based on the standards of practice and the values of Massachusetts farmers, consumers, and residents.
Action 2.2.4: Bring together farmers, plumbers, and regulators to develop a suitable agricultural plumbing code.
Action 2.2.5: Adapt building codes and regulations to promote utilization of vacant industrial buildings for hydroponic growing and other food production.
Action 2.2.6: Develop regulations to facilitate dairy farms’ capacity to sell raw milk and related value-added products direct to consumers while ensuring adequate oversight to protect safety and consumer confidence.
Action 2.2.7: Establish a committee to review State apiary laws and propose recommendations to support the growth of native pollinators.
Action 2.2.8: Work with the congressional delegations of Massachusetts and other New England states to advocate for changes in the federal dairy pricing structure so that it is more sensitive to the particular needs of Massachusetts dairy farms.
Recommendation 2.3: Minimize municipal regulations that hinder farm viability.
Action 2.3.1: Develop a system of checks and balances to support appropriate engagement of municipal boards of health and conservation commissions in agricultural issues and reduce unwarranted or unjustified regulations.
Action 2.3.2: Develop the capacity of agricultural commissions through an organization such as the MAAC, with support from MDAR, to play a formal role in local decisions and issues related to agriculture.
Action 2.3.3: Encourage farmers to serve on local select boards, boards of health, conservation commissions, planning boards, water and sewer commissions, and similar local bodies to ensure that the perspectives of agriculture are represented in local government.
Action 2.3.4: Develop incentives to encourage towns and cities without agricultural commissions to create them, particularly in Gateway Cities, and support technical assistance, education, and networking opportunities for all commission members.
Action 2.3.5: Work to achieve greater overall consistency in municipal health regulations pertaining to agricultural production and marketing so that farmers can more efficiently manage agricultural operations and market opportunities across town lines. State agencies, regional planning agencies, and support organizations should encourage and assist with this action.
Action 2.3.6: Require and publicly fund training of local and State regulators in agriculture and food issues.
Action 2.3.7: Explore and implement options for credentialing of the local public health workforce, accreditation of local health departments, and regionalization of local public health services and regulations.
Action 2.3.7: Create a professionally-facilitated working group that includes representatives from the fields of public health and food systems, as well as regulatory agencies, to develop a proposal to improve regulatory oversight of the local food system with respect to public health. This proposal should address:
The working group should present its proposal to the Massachusetts Food Policy Council, appropriate agencies within the State administration, and the legislature within nine months of the first working group meeting. The proposal should note whether or not State legislative or regulatory changes are needed to implement the proposal’s recommendations, and it should include a draft budget for implementation.
Recommendation 2.4: Address 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.
Action 2.4.1: Develop an online, centralized job matching hub for domestic agricultural workers.
Action 2.4.2: Facilitate partnerships between farmers who require labor during different seasons.
Action 2.4.3: Establish a time-limited youth and training minimum wage for farm workers.
Action 2.4.4: Allow retail farm workers to qualify for the agricultural minimum wage.
Action 2.4.5: Educate farmers about federal and State labor laws, with an emphasis on assistance with compliance, rather than punitive measures for violations.
Action 2.4.6: Ensure that when changes to State labor laws are considered that may affect sick leave, scheduling, overtime, and other related topics that consideration is given to relevance and applicability for on-farm workers.
Action 2.4.7: Change the definition of agriculture as it is applied to the federal Fair Labor Standards Action (FLSA) so that it allows for retail agriculture (work other than field work) and a limited amount of aggregation of goods from area farms.
Action 2.4.8: Work with the congressional delegations of New England states to move administration of the federal H2A Temporary Agricultural Workers Program from the Department of Homeland Security to the USDA.
Action 2.4.9: Allow brokers to aggregate farm work on multiple farms so that a number of farms can share the costs of transportation and housing of H2A temporary agricultural workers.
Action 2.4.10: Allow H2A temporary agricultural workers to remain in the U.S. for a full year.
Action 2.4.11: Support federal legislation to forgive student loans to college graduates after ten years of working in farming.
Action 2.4.12: Offer graduates of local vet schools forgiveness on student loans if they work with large animals in Massachusetts for a set period of time.
Recommendation 2.5: Revise regulatory requirements for livestock processing to facilitate development of increased infrastructure.
Action 2.5.1: Form a committee to review all State laws and regulations relative to livestock processing, as well as the Commonwealth’s current livestock slaughter and processing capacity, and make recommendations for improvements. The committee should include State health and agricultural officials, livestock producers, UMass Extension professionals, and representatives of existing livestock processing facilities.
Action 2.5.2: Move livestock processing oversight from Massachusetts DPH to MDAR to foster a more agriculturally informed environment for regulation of livestock processing.
Action 2.5.3: Assess the suitability of a State-level meat inspection program and implement, if deemed appropriate.
Action 2.5.4: Conduct a study to determine how on-farm poultry processing regulations compare with those of other states and revise Massachusetts’ regulations to facilitate growth in local poultry production.
Action 2.5.5: Create a sliding fee for livestock processing permits based on the number of animals processed.
Action 2.5.6: Develop a clear, practical manual for on-farm poultry processing, including regulatory information.