Massachusetts lawmakers tour Pioneer Valley farms as agriculture bill awaits hearings

By Jim Kinney |
September 17, 2021

HADLEY — Denise Barstow, a seventh-generation farmer, enlivened a tour Friday for state lawmakers, their staff, and advocates for the network of farms and retailers that make up the local food system by answering a question children typically ask.

“What does a cow say?”

Barstow, the education and marketing manager at Barstow’s Dairy Store and Bakery and Barstow’s Longview Farm in Hadley, paused for effect.

“Cows only moo when they are stressed,” she said. “Our cows are quiet.”

But while the 600 cows — 300 of them currently giving milk — at Barstow’s nestled on the slopes of Mount Holyoke are content, farmers are troubled by issues including the overabundance of milk, lack of employees, changing consumer taste and the cost of land.

And the farmers are making noise.

Friday’s tour was organized by state Sem. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton; state Reps Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, and Rep. Dan Carey, D-Easthampton; and by CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).

“Money, it all comes down to money,” said David Barstow, Denise’s father. “They keep telling us that they can source milk cheaper from Ohio and Pennsylvania and truck it in. We don’t like that.”

Barstow’s long ago diversified, operating the ice cream shop/restaurant and drive-thru store as well as a digester to generate electricity using farm and food waste.

But the store is have trouble hiring employees, Denise Barstow said. It’s an issue many businesses face. David Barstow said he thinks many of the high school and college students who normally work at the shop are avoiding high-traffic public places.

Philip Korman, executive director of CISA, said the COVID pandemic taught everyone how important local food is. And he said demand for local food increased during the lockdown — a good thing because dairy farmers lost restaurant and school cafeteria customers.

CISA estimates that 15% to 20% of the food on tables in Hampden, Franklin and Hampshire counties is locally grown. If every household in the region spent just $5 more on local food on $5 less on nonlocal goods each month, the group says, it would generate $7.5 million and create 48 jobs.

But now, with things opening up, consumers seem to be returning to their old habits buying trucked-in food.

Besides Barstow’s, the tour went to Simple Gifts Farm in North Amherst, Reed Farm in Sunderland and Joe Czajkowski Farm in Hadley, where visitors learned about vegetables. A late addition to the tour was the Franklin County Community Development Corp.’s Western MA Food Processing Center in Greenfield. Participants also learned about Mass Food Delivery and the Mycoterra mushroom farm in Westhampton.

Blais said there are policy solutions to problems faced by farmers, much of it in an omnibus bill (S 1822/H 861) still awaiting a hearing on Beacon Hill. The bill would create a $3 million Next Generation Farmers Fund to support agricultural training and education.

“You can talk about things in the Statehouse, and those stories are important, but nothing beats coming here and learning from a farmer,” she said.

A guest on the tour, state Rep. Carolyn C. Dykema, D-Holliston, is chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture. She bristled at the notion that it is hard for rural issues to gain a toehold in a state where Boston and its suburbs dominate the discourse.

“I think you’re underestimating the Western Mass delegation,” she said. “They are united and they speak load and clear.”

There are only a few small farms in Holyoke, but state Rep. Patricia A. Duffy, a Democrat whose district is wholly within the city, was on the tour. She said agriculture bills are jobs bills. They are also open space protection bills.

“These farms feed my constituents,” she said.

Read the article on Mass Live here. 

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