Embrace Old and New to Grow Successful Future

4/20/2013 7:00 AM
By Gregory Watson Massachusetts Agriculture Commissioner

April 2 was Massachusetts Agriculture Day — a day farmers have the opportunity to meet with their legislators at the State House to discuss opportunities and challenges for agriculture in our state.

And most importantly, it is also an acknowledgement and thank-you to our commonwealth’s amazing farmers, who provide a rich and diverse mix of agricultural products to our state’s residents and visitors.

As you may know, I’ve had the honor of serving as commissioner twice, with a 20-year interval in between — a rather unique vantage point from which to have observed and now compare the changes that have taken place over that period.

No question, Massachusetts has experienced a significant evolution in the past 20 years.

For me, the most obvious and encouraging development has been the incredible increase in demand for locally grown food — an acknowledgement by the general public that they understand the importance of what our farms and farmers provide.

As with any change, the increased demand for “Massachusetts Grown and Fresher” creates both opportunities and challenges.

Among the many and varied responses to these opportunities and challenges have been the emergence of some new faces of agriculture on the Massachusetts agricultural landscape:

New beginning farmers primarily seeking land in rural communities.

New beginning farmers seeking to grow on urban lands and rooftops.

They seek to join forces with our traditional/experienced farming community to help Massachusetts create a vibrant, diverse, resilient, sustainable food system ready to meet the economic, social and environmental challenges of the 21st century.

For a number of reasons, I think this bodes well for the future of Massachusetts agriculture.

I also understand that this can be a potential source of friction — something that is inevitable when any kind of changes are introduced.

So let me quickly tell you why I think this is one of the most encouraging developments for Massachusetts agriculture and why we should do all that we can to seize the opportunities to capitalize on it.

First: According to the latest Census of Agriculture, the average age of our farmers is 55 — YOUNG by my standards, but nonetheless in need of a healthy infusion of youthful energy and enthusiasm for the art of farming.

Second: These new farmers broaden the base of support for Massachusetts agriculture — both within communities across the state and with our legislature as well. Our political support needs to be as diverse as the variety of crops we grow to ensure sustainability.

Urban mayors committed to farmers markets and farm-to-school are becoming increasingly involved and effective advocates for local agriculture and are influencing the Farm Bill.

Third: They are the source of new ideas and innovations that can greatly benefit the entire agriculture community. How many of you ever heard of “Crowd Funding”? Young rural and urban farmers are making use of this social media tool to raise funds to build everything from chicken coops to rooftop farms.

Embracing the new does not mean we are abandoning, compromising or shortchanging the traditional. That would be forsaking our heritage and ignoring the most valuable and irreplaceable sources of experience-based knowledge we have.

On the contrary, by working together, we will be stronger than ever.

I urge all of the various commodity groups and agriculture advocates to work with MDAR, Massachusetts Farm Bureau, agricultural commissions, buy-local groups, the University of Massachusetts and other stakeholders to help weave these important threads of the state’s agriculture economy into a seamless fabric that will define an exciting new stage in Massachusetts’ remarkable agricultural history.

Gregory Watson is commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.

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