McGovern gleans input from farmers ahead of White House conference

Staff Writer
Published: 8/16/2022 5:55:24 PM
Modified: 8/16/2022 5:51:56 PM

U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern toured farms in Franklin and Hampshire counties on Tuesday to gain perspective on their operations in anticipation of the first White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health to be held in more than half a century.

As part of his 12th annual district-wide farm tour across central and western Massachusetts, McGovern’s first stop was Greenfield’s Just Roots farm, followed by a visit to Montague’s Red Fire Farm and additional locations in Amherst, Hadley and Northampton. The Worcester congressman explored various fields and facilities at each farm alongside the staff that maintain them, with each worker offering insight into their organization’s strengths and struggles.

McGovern expressed he was encouraged by what he learned on Tuesday, framing the farms’ operations as a model to recognize at September’s White House conference. According to the federal Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, the first — and last — White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health was held in 1969 and was a “pivotal event” that “influenced the country’s food policy agenda for the next 50 years.”

“That was the year we landed somebody on the moon and we’ve learned a lot in the past several decades,” McGovern said.

Just Roots Executive Director Laura Fisher told McGovern that the Greenfield farm has undergone a metamorphosis since he last visited over half a decade ago.

“I think you’ll find that Just Roots has expanded what it’s offering the community since your last time here,” Fisher said. “What I hope you bear witness to is how it has transformed — and can be transformed by — the community it sustains and that sustains it.”

“What I’m going to start by saying is that every farm you’re going to be visiting has a superpower,” added Meryl LaTronica, director of farm operations at Just Roots.

As the tour commenced, staff of Just Roots made it clear that the farm’s superpower is its accessibility and widespread service throughout Franklin County.

“Unfortunately, there’s a ton of people out here in Massachusetts who are experiencing food insecurity,” said Joshua Faller, food access and equity program manager at Just Roots.

According to a pamphlet provided at the tour, the farm “developed and operates one of the largest SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program)-enrolled, low-income Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm share programs in Massachusetts.” Cultivated across 61 acres of city-owned land, Just Roots “provides farm-fresh produce year-round to over 250 families throughout the greater Franklin County area” with this program. Shares from the program also service 400 MassHealth patients experiencing food insecurity statewide through health care referrals.

“First of all, this is incredible,” McGovern said. “Just Roots is a model of what we should be doing not only across the commonwealth, but across the country.”

Meanwhile, Red Fire Farm, which has locations in both Montague and Granby, prides itself in being a “certified organic, very diverse vegetable farm,” according to co-owner Sarah Voiland.

“One of our biggest goals is to feed the community for as much of the year as possible with the widest diversity of crops,” she said.

Red Fire Farm’s “superpower” could also be considered to be its resourcefulness, making the most of limited acreage.

“It’s really hard to find enough land to have a business, so what we have we really scraped together,” co-owner Ryan Voiland said.

“In addition to the ‘fire’ in Red Fire Farm, there’s a fire that’s been burning in that kid for growing and maintaining,” added Paul Voiland, Ryan’s father.

After treating McGovern to blueberries and cherry tomatoes straight from the bush, the Voilands explained to McGovern that aside from land limitations, a primary concern that Red Fire Farm has is the declining condition of its buildings. Ryan Voiland estimated the farm’s buildings need upwards of $2 million in repairs, with the most pressing infrastructure needs being roofs on the verge of collapse.

“In general, we’re just barely holding the buildings together around here so they can stay functional,” he said.

Funding was also a primary concern for Just Roots. According to Faller, the farm’s CSA program is “extremely dependent” on the state’s 1115 MassHealth Demonstration waiver. The waiver “seeks to transform the delivery of care for most MassHealth members and to change how that care is paid for, with the goals of improving quality and establishing greater control over spending,” according to the state’s website.

“We could do more, but it’s all dependent on available funding,” said Faller, who attributed the CSA program’s success to MassHealth Accountable Care Organization partners that depend on the waiver.

LaTronica, of Just Roots, also urged McGovern to consider climate change as a threat to farms when he consults with White House officials in September.

“Farming in this kind of climate crisis is bonkers,” LaTronica said.

In addition to McGovern, other officials, such as state Rep. Natalie Blais, Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner and Montague Town Planner Walter Ramsey were in attendance along the tour. As McGovern wrapped up his morning, he voiced a commitment to collaboration.

“We want to work with you with this stuff,” he said.

McGovern planned to continue his farm tour across the district on Wednesday, including a visit to Seeds of Solidarity in Orange at 9:30 a.m.

Read the article on the Greenfield Recorder

Signup for Barstow's monthly newsletter