State agricultural chief visits Berkshires, praising local farms and Berkshire Grown
PITTSFIELD — Brattle Farm on Williams Street is located on the site of Pittsfield's first house, built in 1762 by William Brattle, one of the city's founding fathers.
The property has been a working farm since the Chandler family bought it some 10 years ago. It serves as an example of the growing agricultural scene, popularized by the growth of the farm-to-table movement.
"We're not the biggest agricultural state in the country, I think we all know that," said state Agricultural Commissioner John Lebeaux, who visited Brattle Farm Wednesday as part of a countywide tour that also included stops at others farms in Housatonic and Lanesborough.
"But what we do we do really well. We're very high on direct sales."
Direct sales refer to the sale of produce directly from the farmer to the consumer through farms that participate in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, or through sales at farmers markets. The CSA movement began in the Berkshires in the 1980s before going national.
"We're up in the top three (in the country) in sales directly to the consumer," said Barbara Zheutlin, the executive director of Berkshire Grown, the Great Barrington-based organization that supports local food and farms. Zheutlin was one of several representatives of Berkshire County agricultural organizations that accompanied Lebeaux on Wednesday's tour of four county farms — North Plain Farm in Housatonic and Square Roots Farm and Lakewiew Orchards in Lanesborugh were the three other stops. State Sen. Adam Hinds and state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier joined the tour at Brattle Farm.
The state takes the local farm movement seriously. According to Lebeaux, $300,000 in state funding was allocated to buy local food across Massachusetts for fiscal 2018. Berkshire Grown alone received $30,000 from the state toward those efforts during the previous fiscal year, Zheutlin said.
"We're happy to support Berkshire Grown," said Lebeaux, who is the grandson of a farmer and the son of a nursery owner. "We can see what they're doing firsthand."
Agriculture and farming are not among the Berkshires' largest job sectors. But the Berkshires have the second largest farms of any county in the state at 117 acres per establishment, according to the latest state agricultural census figures. Berkshire County accounts for 11.8 percent of the state's total farmland. Farley-Bouvier said agriculture is a key part of the future economy in Pittsfield, which has previously relied heavily on manufacturing.
"What we are very clear about in Berkshire County is that we want to diversify our economy, and having agriculture be part of that diversification is really important," she said. "We don't want to be a one-shop town anymore in Pittsfield. We want to see people making a living in many different ways."
Another possible growth area for farmers in Massachusetts is marijuana. Voters approved a ballot question last fall that legalized the use of recreational marijuana in Massachusetts, and Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill that clarified the issue last week.
Issues involving the growing of marijuana for recreational use will be under the purview of the newly created Cannabis Control Commission not the Department of Agriculture, Lebeaux said. State agricultural officials will oversee the growing of industrialized hemp, a product that is used in rope, clothing and construction materials.
"I'm not quite sure what we'll be doing, if we're doing anything with the farming of recreational marijuana, because the commission will be holding on to that tightly," he said. "A lot of farmers are interested in getting involved in hemp."
The initial growing of marijuana for recreational use in Massachusetts is expected to be an "indoor project," said Farley-Bouvier due to "security concerns."
Hinds said the ballot initiative and the legislation that was signed last week removed barriers for farmers who may eventually be interested in growing marijuana for recreational use.
"We want to make sure there wasn't a delay for those who would be cultivating versus those already growing in the medical marijuana industry," Hinds said. "This could be a billion dollar industry. The original legislation would have boxed out farmers and that would have made no sense."
Business Editor Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at 413 496-6224.
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