New England Ag Faces Opportunities and Threats

3/9/2013 7:00 AM
By Guy Steucek Massachusetts Correspondent

STURBRIDGE, Mass. — More than 800 farmers/growers attended the Harvest New England Agricultural Marketing Conference and Trade Show Feb. 27-28 to educate each other on the ways of agriculture with an emphasis on marketing.

Also attending were the commissioners of agriculture from each of the New England states, who held a panel discussion addressing the biggest opportunities and threats to agriculture in the region.

“The increase in demand for local food is a tremendous opportunity for agriculture in our state,” said Connecticut Agriculture Commissioner Steven Reviczky. “In addition, farmers gain through direct marketing and through value-added products. Institutional buying is a big gain for local farmers and the local economy in general.”

Reviczky said he expects to see more institutions purchase food from local farmers. Currently, there is a major food hub in Hartford that handles hundreds of millions of dollars in agricultural products.

“We have to be mindful as to how we regulate agriculture and the food production industries; not all obey the rules,” Reviczky said, adding some regulation could be a threat to New England agriculture.

Walter Whitcomb, commissioner of the Maine Department of Food and Rural Resources, said Maine has always been an exporter of agricultural goods because its population is low and declining.

“We have to be careful defining local’ when communities adjacent to farms cannot sustain farm production,” Whitcomb said. “For example, communities around blueberry farms would have to consume 80 pounds of berries per day, per capita. We have to ship the berries out from the locale where they are grown.”

By amalgamating efforts between agriculture, forestry, recreation and tourism, a great many opportunities for young, innovative farmers can be realized, he said.

“We welcome young, innovative farmers to Maine,” Whitcomb said.

Mary Jordan, who filled in for Massachusetts Commissioner of Agricultural Resources Gregory Watson, said direct marketing has taken off in Massachusetts over the past 20 years.

“With the advent of shopping malls, a disconnect developed within small communities as people vacated the town center,” Jordan said. “Today, farmers markets have brought citizens back to the town center, which has revitalized the town.”

She said consumers have changed over the years, too. “People want to know how their food is produced and they support local agriculture.”

Likewise, education has changed.

“At present, there are six agricultural high schools in the U.S. and four of them are in Massachusetts,” Jordan said.

In addition, urban agriculture is booming in Boston and Worcester, she said.

“Two of the major hurdles for agriculture in Massachusetts are regulations and access to land,” Jordan said.

The issue of agricultural land access drew a great number of questions and comments from the audience, in particular, how to effectively preserve farm land and make it available to young farmers in New England.

Lorraine Stuart Merrill, commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food, noted that the proximity of farms to suburban populations was both the biggest threat and opportunity.

“The interdigitating of sprawl development cheek by jowl with farms can give rise to nuisance claims,” Merrill said. “There are towns which are agricultural in nature where residents don’t want agriculture. Farmer-driven agriculture commissions can address this problem.”

Unfortunately, too often farmers are too busy to play the roles they should in the development of these commissions, she said.

Merrill also extolled the value of farm-to-school programs that exist in all New England states.

Kenneth Ayers, chief of the Rhode Island Division of Agriculture, said, “Rhode Island produces about 1 percent of its food; this is not sustainable. There is a dramatic change in local and regional food systems in New England. The profile of agriculture has increased, as well as the respect for farmers.”

Rhode Island has a large seafood industry with many participating in local retail. However, some of the squid harvest is sent to China, where it is processed and shipped back to the U.S. and sold.

On the threat side, Ayers said access to land for farmers is a major concern.

In addition, he said, with direct marketing and local production/consumption comes a responsibility commodity farmers with distant markets may not feel.

“We don’t want to mess up,” Ayers said. “We need to be careful about food safety issues. Remember, the public is holding you up to be something different than the wholesalers.”

Chuck Ross, Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, said the “60 to 90 million people living in New England and environs represents a huge opportunity for agriculture.”

“Looking down the barrel of the 21st century, agriculture is a career to address the global issues of the day, such as climate change,” Ross said. “Agriculture has a responsibility to clean up the environment in a restorative way. We should not continue to degrade the environment.”

Among other issues farmers need to address, Ross said, are agriculture literacy and food safety. He said, for example, that many people do not know where eggs come from and have distorted views of manure.

“Good regulation is a great promotion,” Ross said in addressing the issue of food safety. “We need to be flexible with rules on food safety or bureaucracy will get in the way. We have to make sure the regulations do it right.”

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