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Mass. Agricultural Commissioner Discusses Berkshire Farm Tour

A white man with glasses and a beard in a green shirt stands in a parking lot in front of an old white building.
Josh Landes
Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources Commissioner John Lebeaux.

On Tuesday, Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources Commissioner John Lebeaux made his yearly visit to the Berkshires. Appointed by Governor Charlie Baker in 2015, Lebeaux – the grandson of a farmer – spent years working with his father at their family nurseries in Shrewsbury and is a certified horticulturalist. He’s been a selectperson in Shrewsbury as well as a member of the Massachusetts Board of Food and Agriculture, and served two terms as President of the Massachusetts Nursery and Landscape Association. WAMC spoke with Lebeaux in Stockbridge about his tour of four farms in Southern Berkshire County.

LEBEAUX: Our department's mission is to keep the Massachusetts food supply safe and secure, and to keep Massachusetts agriculture economically and environmentally sound. So we do that through a variety of programs, both regulatory and promotional. We put out a lot of grants to farmers. So we're active, and here we're out today with Berkshire Grown. We deal with the various Buy Local groups throughout the state, and they're a little bit of our eyes and ears and help us navigate the individual region. And they showed us some great things today.

WAMC: So walk me through that. What did you see in your tour of Southern Berkshire County today?

Well, today we saw the focus was on farms in which the farmers do not own the property. And that's a big- You all know out here and particularly in Southern Berkshire County, land values are so high, it's very difficult sometimes, unless it's like a family farm that's handed down, for new young beginning farmers to acquire land. So we met with some farmers who have- Often sometimes it's just a handshake deal with a interested landowner who might want to support this activity. But it's a big challenge these days, and we heard from some farmers today that would like to get a little more certainty.

So from your vantage point and your position, what's the best way to support farmers in that position?

Well, I mean, the easiest thing to say is for consumers to do business with any of our local farmers. I don't think you need to necessarily find those that don't own land. But that's what makes the farm viable and puts dollars into their pocket. And in some cases, they're hoping to acquire the land that they are currently renting or have this agreement on, or in some cases are looking for others. And frankly, sometimes a long term lease would be satisfactory, in some cases preferred. But they need that certainty, because if you want to make improvements to the property, to the infrastructure, to the ground, you want to be able to take the full benefit of that. So support your local farmer.

Now, on a statewide level, how does the Berkshire agricultural community fit into the broad statewide vision of farming in Massachusetts?

Well, we have a high preponderance of dairy farms out here, because dairy farms require a lot of land. And certainly there's a lot of that in Berkshire County. Berkshire County is one of our major agricultural counties in the state. I think it does about 20% of the state's annual agricultural value. We do, statewide, about a half a billion dollars a year- a little less than that. I think it's in the $90 million, about 20%, I believe, for Berkshire. So a preponderant- I mean, we see a lot of dairy out here, but a lot of produce. It's a very wide range of product that's shipped all across, well, not just across the state but across the region.

Now, the concerns and the issues you're hearing from farmers today in the Berkshires- Are those similar to what you're hearing from farmers across the state? Are they distinct to the region? How’s fit in?

Well, I mean, land values in Massachusetts are expensive, but in an area where there's competition for vacation homes, second homes, so Bristol County, similarly, but certainly Berkshire County is a little bit of a poster child for that. So that's something that's unique. However, I think the second thing we heard a lot today was about labor, the difficulty in sometimes keeping labor year to year. And that's a statewide, that's a problem. Labor is a problem. To acquire good labor, and to be able to keep them and to be, you know, to pay people a good living wage that makes them want to continue to do that. So that's a huge challenge, labor.

So in your position, do you have a philosophy that you follow or a vision for agriculture in the state? How do you sort of define that what you do in your role?

Well, I mean, I try to follow our mission. And truthfully, I think it's a pretty good mission. And I didn't invent the mission. I inherited the mission. So you know, we try to regulate fairly. I mean, there are times when we have to tell farmers ‘no.’ We try not to, but, you know, we're very we were very active, say, during COVID. We tried to set up procedures, regulations that would allow the farmers’ markets to open. I mean, that was the question. I mean, 15 months ago, there were a lot of questions. And so we try to have a regulatory scheme that that ties into the mission. Yes, sometimes we have to tell people, you can do that, or you may not do that. But our goal is to keep our farmers as successful as they possibly can.

Is there something people don't know about farming in Massachusetts that you wish they did know?

Well, you know, obviously, we're not one of the big square Midwest states. We're not pumping out, you know, hundreds of millions of tons of corn or soybean. But we're very good at what we do here. We have some very, very innovative farmers. So what we have advantage, our great advantage is the consumer base. You know, 6 million or so people live in Massachusetts. We are one of the top 10 leading direct sales from farm to consumer in the United States. So it's the farm stand. It's the farmers’ market. It's the mobile market. It's the CSA. That's where Massachusetts, many Massachusetts farmers have done so well. Now, obviously, that's not cranberries. That's not dairy. But a lot of our farmers survive by selling retail and not wholesale or a great deal of retail and not wholesale. So I don't know how many people know that we're one of the leading states in the country for direct sales from farm to consumer.

What's on your radar, looking into the summer into the fall for farming in Massachusetts? Are there any big landmarks or timelines are following as the seasons continue to move forward?

Well, I mean, you know, we very much respond to the seasons. I mean, it's a quintessential seasonal activity. Farmers had a good year last year. I mean, it's interesting how COVID affected different businesses. You know, people increased their desire for locally produced food for a variety of reasons. Maybe it was safer to purchase. They just didn't want to deal with a lot of people or that drove them there and then they found a happy space there. So some of it is retaining customers that were first introduced to local agriculture through COVID. And we're seeing a fair amount of that this year. So things are good. You know, as I mentioned, for the most part, agriculture did well through COVID, Massachusetts agriculture did well through COVID. And it's very grateful that that the residents of the commonwealth thought fit that that was a good place to procure food, and that's what we want them to continue to do.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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