A farming intervention: The new Farmland Action Plan offers long-term ideas to help farms statewide

Jeremy Barker-Plotkin, co-owner of Simple Gifts farm in Amherst, in one of the green houses where they grow a lettuce mix.

Jeremy Barker-Plotkin, co-owner of Simple Gifts farm in Amherst, in one of the green houses where they grow a lettuce mix. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Jeremy Barker-Plotkin, co-owner of Simple Gifts farm in Amherst, in one of the green houses where they grow a lettuce mix.

Jeremy Barker-Plotkin, co-owner of Simple Gifts farm in Amherst, in one of the green houses where they grow a lettuce mix. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Jeremy Barker-Plotkin, co-owner of Simple Gifts farm in Amherst, in one of the greenhouses where they grow a lettuce mix. He notes that extreme weather attributed to climate change is posing a threat to farms’ viability.

Jeremy Barker-Plotkin, co-owner of Simple Gifts farm in Amherst, in one of the greenhouses where they grow a lettuce mix. He notes that extreme weather attributed to climate change is posing a threat to farms’ viability. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Jeremy Barker-Plotkin, co-owner of Simple Gifts farm in Amherst, in the farm store.

Jeremy Barker-Plotkin, co-owner of Simple Gifts farm in Amherst, in the farm store. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Jeremy Barker-Plotkin, co-owner of Simple Gifts farm in Amherst, in the farm store.

Jeremy Barker-Plotkin, co-owner of Simple Gifts farm in Amherst, in the farm store. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Scott Codey, an employee of Simple Gifts farm in Amherst, weeds rows of lettuce mix.

Scott Codey, an employee of Simple Gifts farm in Amherst, weeds rows of lettuce mix. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By MADDIE FABIAN

Staff Writer

Published: 12-08-2023 5:54 PM

For farms across western Massachusetts, the effects of climate change were tangible during the 2023 growing season.

At Red Fire Farm in Granby, co-owner Sarah Voiland said that after the May frost event, the farm’s full harvest on multiple acres of apples in their orchard totaled just five fruits, while the February deep freeze caused the total loss of their peaches.

Other area farms near the river, like Stone Soup Farm in Hadley and Mountain View Farm in Easthampton, lost acres of vegetables to the July flooding after heavy rains swept through the region.

“With the compounding challenges of climate change, when you look at the limited quantity of really prime farmland that we have that can withstand drought and the increasing rain that we’re seeing in the Northeast … protecting it before it transitions into development is really important,” Voiland said.

Preserving farmland is one of several steps recommended in the Massachusetts Farmland Action Plan, a new long-term strategic report released this week to address the needs of farmers across the state.

The 200-page plan recommends goals, strategies and priorities to tackle three primary areas of concern: protection and conservation of farmland, access to farmland, and expanding the economic and environmental viability of farms.

“This is really, at the highest altitude, a look at farmland, at farm economic stability, at the next generation of farmers and how to support them,” said state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton. “Food security, climate resiliency, environmental justice … It really is a comprehensive look at the intersections of all of those.”

The plan has been in development for several years, and is a collaborative effort of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, the UMass Donahue Institute, the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative and the American Farmland Trust. Hundreds of farmers were also engaged in the process.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Music in the sky: Summit House Sunset Concert Series returns to its 173-year-old home
Knitters’ paradise: Webs, ‘America’s Yarn Store’ and a mainstay for Valley crafters for generations, turns 50
Easthampton to lose Pepin school gymnasium as public recreation space
Easthampton’s 11 Ferry St. project promises affordable five-story, 96-unit complex
Taylor Haas takes the reins as new executive director at Three County Fairgrounds
Sunderland receives $195K grant to study, design multi-use trail from Whately to Amherst

“Ultimately, all of this is being conducted within the context of the existential threats of climate change,” said Gerard Kennedy, state director of Agriculture Conservation and Technical Assistance.

The plan also aligns with the state’s goals for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the 2025 and 2030 Clean Energy and Climate Plan, the Healthy Soils Action Plan, the Resilient Lands Initiative and other state efforts.

Conservation and protection

About 10% of Massachusetts’ land, or nearly 500,000 acres, is farmland. And while farms are an essential part of achieving state goals related to food security, climate change and economic growth, only 15% of existing farmland is currently protected from being converted to other uses.

Already, between 1997 and 2017, the state lost nearly 60,000 acres of farmland.

Kennedy said that between 50,000 and 90,000 acres is currently at risk of being lost by 2040, according to the American Farmland Trust, which ranks Massachusetts third in the nation in terms of threats to farmland.

“The plan is really a way to highlight the fact that we are losing land at an alarming pace in the state, and if we don’t do something about it, we’re going to continue to lose active, productive farmland,” said Kennedy.

A key part of that process will involve engaging with landowners and educating them on the importance of protecting farmland, he said.

“Without protecting farmland, we really are at risk of losing acreage. Once an acre of farmland is developed … it will never come back to farming again,” Comerford said. “[The plan] is going to help farmers in Hampshire County who are interested in protecting their land make that easier to do.”

Farmland access

Voiland said that as a first-generation farm, over the years it has been a “constant adventure” trying to find land available for the long term to grow on.

“Like, so we found this land, we’re growing on it for 10 years, and then it’s a year-to-year lease and they want to sell it for development next year. What can we possibly do to stop that situation?” she said.

Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Rebecca Tepper said in a statement that the plan “will protect and expand our existing acreage by making more public land available for lease to farmers and enacting zoning measures that support farmland.” 

The report indicates that between 2020 and 2021, the price of farmland increased by 21%, and is now averaging $13,700 per acre.

“We’ve also got some of the most expensive farmland in the country, so there are barriers to access for farmers, particularly new and beginning farmers historically underserved or marginalized,” said Kennedy. 

The plan addresses a need for equity criteria, particularly for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and immigrant groups in all grants, programs, policies and other actions.

Viability

Jeremy Barker Plotkin, co-owner of Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst, said that like other businesses, the farm has faced inflation and higher costs in recent years.

“We’ve had some projects that we did at the farm that were grant-funded and in the few months between when we put in the proposal, got the quotes, and then got the grant, the costs had gone up enough to make it difficult to get the project done,” Barker Plotkin said.

Beyond increased costs, he said, “I think farming has a particular thing that’s different from other businesses, which is our susceptibility to weather … Weather is increasingly unpredictable.”

The plan aims to support the long-term viability of farms in the face of climate change by increasing assistance programs around climate change adaptation strategies, building UMass Extension’s capacity to support farmers, and incentivizing farmers to use practices that support climate goals.

“The best way to protect Massachusetts farmland is to ensure that farmers have the tools they need to thrive in the face of climate change, volatile markets, and other challenges,” Department of Agricultural Resources Commissioner Ashley Randle said in a statement.

Each year, Massachusetts farms generate around $10 billion in economic activity, according to the department.

“Farms are major economic drivers in our region, so the economic health of farms translates to the economic health of the county,” said Comerford.

Next steps for the plan, said Kennedy, including hiring a coordinator to oversee the implementation process.

“Ultimately, this is really a food security issue, something that we need to address in the context of climate change,” said Kennedy.

Maddie Fabian can be reached at mfabian@gazettenet.com.