Saving Our State Farms

May 11, 2010 : The Berkshire Eagle, Editorial by Robert Culver

Sometimes it's the small stuff that makes a big difference. Massachusetts is now offering microloans that are going to help us save family farms, make headway against obesity and decrease our carbon footprint.

In a world of multi-billion-dollar stimulus plans the dollars don't seem like much. From a total pool of $250,000 MassDevelopment will work with the New England farm consulting group The Carrot Project and Vermont-based Strolling of the Heifers to make loans of $3,000 to $15,000 to small farmers – those with fewer than 250 acres under cultivation and under $250,000 in annual revenues – across the Bay State.

These small dollars have huge implications for farmers who too often are working on tiny margins. A similar program in Vermont and Western Massachusetts run by the same groups, the Strolling of the Heifers Micro Loan Fund, has helped finance capital and operating funds and has already been credited with keeping farms in business. That is something we need more than ever in Massachusetts.

This is still, in large part, an agricultural state. Massachusetts has almost 8,000 farms on almost 518,000 acres of land, according to the 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture. Farms bring in $6 billion in revenue, employ 13,000 people, and play an international role in production of cranberries, wild blueberries, squash, and maple syrup. Dramatically growing are organic farms that are aiming for the booming locally grown market and providing homes, schools and supermarkets with everything from eggs and milk to beef and chicken.

But right now, more than ever, our farms need this helping hand. Many Massachusetts farmers saw their crops ruined last year by heavy rain in June and July, which delayed the growing season, and extreme heat in August. Recent flood-producing rains have also taken a toll.

Why should we be in the business of saving farms? Every small local farmer forced to close his or her doors sets off a chain reaction that has enormous costs for all of us. The now-unfarmed open space is too often turned into housing developments, strip malls or big box stores, stressing already overtaxed local services, degrading the environment and spoiling the quality – and beauty – of traditional New England communities.

The damage is felt at the dinner table: When a small farm closes, the broccoli or potatoes or beef or apples that once came from a trusted neighbor now need to be trucked in from hundreds, if not thousands of miles away. Our food becomes disconnected from our lives, and its transport becomes yet another environmental pressure.

Small farm microloans are also necessary to keep the state's farms alive and thriving as part of one of the most successful Farm to School programs in the country. Since its inception in 2004, with help from the state Department of Agriculture and MassDevelopment, Farm to School has boomed in Massachusetts – giving farmers a major market for their goods and our children healthful, fresh food. More than 200 school districts now get a significant portion of their food from local farms, with much of that produce, meat, milk and eggs coming from 60 Massachusetts farms. The program has rapidly expanded, and 49 colleges and private schools also purchased food directly from local farms.

Along with programs already available through the state's Department of Agricultural Resources through its Buy Local and land preservation programs, local farmers now have a new tool to help us keep the trucks off the road, the cows in the field and the freshest food on the table.

Robert Culver is the CEO of MassDevelopment.

© Copyright 2010 The Berkshire Eagle.