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“We lost 27,000 acres” in five years: Mass. agricultural commissioner visits Berkshire County to hear from local farmers

Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources Ashley Randle speaking with WAMC in Monterey, Massachusetts.
Josh Landes
Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources Ashley Randle speaking with WAMC in Monterey, Massachusetts.

The Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources was in Berkshire County Tuesday. Ashley Randle, who previously worked for the Northeast Dairy Producers Association and the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry, was appointed by Governor Maura Healey in March 2023. Raised on a dairy farm in South Deerfield, Randle was taken on a farm tour through the Southern Berkshires by local agricultural nonprofit Berkshire Grown to hear about the challenges the industry is facing in Western Massachusetts, like the continued struggle to access land. Randle spoke with WAMC at the Berkshire Mobile Farmers Market in Monterey about what she learned, as well as the anniversary of the storms that devastated farms across the region.

RANDLE: Today was a really great day of tours around Berkshire County, being able to meet new and beginning farmers and talk about some of the challenges that they faced in terms of land access and being able to have a steady market source for their products. And we also talked about opportunities, so, through our grant programs at the department, as well as working with local land trusts to be able to have secure access to land, that was another area we really focused on, and now we're ending the day at a mobile market to see how they're able to bring local fresh food to community members at an affordable price for any community member.

WAMC: Now, we've been hearing about this issue with land access for years now in Massachusetts. How are you seeing that problem evolve in the commonwealth? Is it worse off than it was a few years ago? Are there improvements being made? What's your analysis?

So since the last census, the recent census data came out in February, and in five years, we lost 27,000 acres of farmland in the commonwealth, and it really is one of our top priorities and one of our top issues in the state as we recognize that housing is a concern and a need, as well as renewable energy pressures and how we can make it so that everything fits into the equation so we can have a strong economy where people have access to affordable housing as well as lower their energy costs. So, finding the right balance and finding programs and establishing new programs that help support farmers. For instance, we have a land licensing program at the department that is an affordable way for new, beginning, or even long seasoned farmers be able to get into agriculture and have access to land and build some of that capital improvement investments into the land, and then be able, ultimately, to buy the land.

Now, are there examples across Massachusetts that resemble some of the challenges you're seeing in the Berkshires? How does like Western Mass fit into that larger agricultural picture?

Growing up in Western Mass and now having the opportunity to travel around the state and see the different farming practices as well as challenges, really, the top concerns and top challenges remain labor and land access, and we recognize that with inflation, the costs of production have also increased in the last few years. So, throughout the state and throughout the region in the northeast, we face similar challenges. So, it's not only a Massachusetts concern, it's a regional concern that all of us are trying to tackle together.

Now, from your perspective, in the state legislature right now, are we seeing action to address some of these concerns?

Yes, absolutely. So, through the economic development bill, as well as the environmental bond bill that's coming up and legislation that's been filed this session, there has been legislation where it would allow the department to buy, protect, and then sell land to farmers, which is another way to make it more affordable for farmers that want to farm in Massachusetts, and that's really one of the bills that we've been following and really appreciate the legislature's support, because they have been so supportive of agriculture, and we saw that last year when climate change also impacts farms, which is another challenge farms are facing.

Now, you just brought it up- We're facing roughly the one-year anniversary of the devastating storms that did such a remarkable amount of damage to agriculture here across the commonwealth, but particularly in Western Massachusetts. Can you speak a little bit one year out where you see the commonwealth's agricultural community as they continue to recover?

One year out, I will say that, and the theme of today has been community, and what we saw last year has continued in terms of community supporting community. And consumers are continuing to support their local farms, recognizing last year how vulnerable they are to climate change and how their favorite CSA or local farm stand can be wiped out of their product for the entire season in a matter of a few hours. So, we're seeing that community support continue. We're also having more conversations about resiliency and how we can help farms mitigate against the impacts of climate change, whether it's through our grant programs or working with our colleagues in the legislature, and last year, with the $20 million, we've heard from so many farms that, but for those grants that they were able to get, up to $350,000 for some of the larger farms, they would not be in business this year. And so that really was a lifeline for many of the farms, and we're mindful on the one year anniversary that tomorrow, things could change. But I feel like as a state and with the administration, we're in a better position to be able to help farms.

When it comes to emerging agricultural trends over the rest of 2024, what is on your docket as you see the summer season kick into full gear?

Certainly, our farms are very diversified in Massachusetts, and we continue to see agritourism grow across the state in the last five years. The amount that farms are receiving and contributing to the local economy from agritourism has more than doubled, and COVID certainly played a part in that. But more people are interested about where their food is coming from, or visiting their local farm that maybe they've lived there for 20 years but never visited before. So, agritourism is one way that farms are diversifying. We also see with over 200 farmers markets across the state, the value of farms that have the capacity to attend farmers markets and make those connections within their local communities. So, the farmers markets are continuing to grow and be a really critical point for food access, and then also recognizing that we're very diversified, as I said. We have cranberries and aquaculture, we have vegetable and fruit production, we have livestock farmers. Coming from a dairy farm, seeing how the dairy industry has diversified with more farms doing value added processing right on the farm. I think there's so many opportunities to find a place in Massachusetts agriculture. It just has to be the right fit, and no two farms look the same, and that's one of the great reasons that Massachusetts is a wonderful place to start a farm.

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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