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Addressing farmland challenges in Massachusetts

by Cris Coffin, Policy Director, Land For Good, and Chair, Massachusetts Food System Collaborative.

The Massachusetts Local Food Action Plan notes that farmland is the foundational infrastructure for the Commonwealth’s agricultural industry, and specifically recognizes the need to address two challenges: protect our most productive farmland for the future, and find ways to keep farms in farming as the $1.8 billion in land and other agricultural assets that our senior farmers own change hands over the next two decades. As demand for Massachusetts-grown foods grows, and efforts to keep those foods affordable for all communities increase, the need for these solutions has never been more urgent.

Despite Massachusetts’ pioneering land conservation efforts, just 14% of the Commonwealth’s 523,500 acres of land in farms is permanently protected and can never be developed. In addition, more than one-third of the Commonwealth’s farmland is owned or managed by farmers age 65 and older, and 90% of these seniors have no next generation poised to take over the operation.

These are not small challenges. To keep land in farming, to bring more land into production (as the Plan recommends), to help older farmers plan for their future, and to provide affordable land tenure options for the next generation of Massachusetts farmers will take a combination of new policy tools, more funding for proven established programs, and increased and better coordinated services among NGOs, farm lenders, and federal and state agencies.

One of the Plan’s land-related goals that the MA Food System Collaborative, Land For Good, American Farmland Trust, and others have been working on is the Plan’s call for a formal statewide Farmland Action Plan to compile data on land use trends and use that data to guide state investments and policies related to farmland access, protection, and use. The Legislature passed a bill last year which would have established a task force to develop this plan, but unfortunately this was vetoed by Governor Baker. In lieu of the task force, Department of Agricultural Resources Commissioner John Lebeaux established an advisory panel to review the state’s policies related to farmland protection and access, identify challenges, and recommend new policy tools or changes to current state programs, policies and regulations.

On May 31 I joined a group of about 20 other stakeholders – including representatives from the Board of Agriculture, the Agricultural Lands Preservation Committee, and farm, commodity and conservation organizations, as well as legislators and farmers – for the first meeting of this Farmland Advisory Panel. We had a productive, wide-ranging discussion led by Commissioner Lebeaux, and identified several issues the group felt were among the most important to address. Two smaller subgroups were created to start digging in to these issues in earnest, and these subgroups have begun their work.

The breadth of expertise and diversity of perspectives that the Commissioner assembled for this advisory panel is commendable. I am hopeful that this process will lead to a thoughtful analysis of existing state-level tools and data which, in turn, will inform discrete recommendations to the administration on expanding and improving the state’s farmland protection and access toolbox. Some potential improvements have already been flagged in the Plan. This Panel gives us an opportunity to roll up our sleeves and get moving on making these improvements happen.

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