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Can we survive off the land?

Recorder file photo
Pumpkins wait ready in a field in Sunderland in this file photo.

Recorder file photo Pumpkins wait ready in a field in Sunderland in this file photo. Purchase photo reprints »

Can Franklin County feed itself?

A new farmland and food supply study completed for the Franklin Regional Council of Governments says yes, assuming that we can continue to preserve farmland, convince farmers to modify their crops and convince others to change eating habits.

And while being entirely sustainable would require 45,000 acres of farmland — about 8,000 acres more than now — the 80-page study recommends an easier way to achieve “self-reliance,” focused on what we already grow well, requiring 34,000 acres.

The study, completed by Conway School of Landscape Design, looked at how much farmland is needed to meet the nutritional needs of residents, how much farmland there is and where and whether there’s enough for the county to be self-sufficient. It also addressed where there’s potential for additional farmland and whether the county should strive for complete self-sufficiency.

Obviously, there are no walls around the 26-town region, and farm products produced here — $57 million worth in 2007, according to the most recent Census of Agriculture — theoretically go where the market demands.

But surveys and meetings to develop themes for the regional sustainable development plan being written by the COG’s planning department pointed to protection of farmland as a top priority, given concerns about food security and increasing transportation costs, according to Franklin Regional Planning Director Margaret Sloan.

“Our intent was not that all the food would be produced in Franklin County,” Sloan said. “But if we needed to, we asked, would there be sufficient food here? How much farmland do we need to protect in the region to be sustainable and maybe in the future, to be self-sufficient from a food standpoint, given the rising cost of fossil fuels and transportation, as well as the safety concerns about food and the rising demand for local food?”

The timeliness of the analysis was driven home Wednesday at a “Food and Farm for the Future” forum in Amherst at which Hampshire College President Jonathan Lash said, “I’ve worked on this issue for 30 years, and everything that’s happening now demonstrates that what we thought was the worst imaginable case is now business as usual. Citing the Midwest drought last summer, rising global food prices and population, and tropical deforestation, Lash said, “In the next five years, there will be more reasons to produce fewer greenhouse gases and increase food production.”

As the COG’s larger sustainable development plan looked at balancing issues like land and natural resource protection, housing needs,

and economic development, planners approached the Conway School, which completed a Feed Northampton study in 2011.

Using U.S. Department of Agriculture data about the nutritional requirements of an average person, as well as about how much farmland is being used and is protected, the study’s authors looked at Franklin County’s projected population reaching 77,000 over the next 25 years. But since a foodshed analysis required looking at how much farmland is needed to meet an average diet, they turned to a “New England Food Vision” analysis done by Brandeis University professor and Gill resident Brian Donahue.

“Complete food self-sufficiency is probably not possible or even desirable,” Donahue says in his own analysis, quoted in the Franklin County study. “The key is to identify which foods are most suitable and yield the greatest benefits.”

Donahue’s study looks at the potential for the region to meet most of its needs for vegetables, dairy and meat, as well as about half of its fruit. Since no one expects global warming to raise temperatures here so much that we’ll be growing bananas, oranges and pineapples, the assumption is that the other half of our fruit would be imported into the region.

Likewise, rice is left to be imported, along with sugar, with maple syrup and honey providing the balance of our sweeteners. And local venison, the analysis suggests, could take the place of fish to meet our dietary needs.

To meet a more modest standard of “self-reliance, the county would need an additional 3,880 acres beyond the 12,320 acres of pasture it already has, and needs only an additional 13 acres in orchards — although, the report points out, that’s only if the fruit was sold exclusively within the county.

When it comes to land crops, Franklin County already has 7,000 acres more than the 16,547 it would need for self-reliance.

Yet, Sloan said, a key point of the analysis is that “We need to be doing a lot more farmland protection.”

More farmland

The analysis also doesn’t take into account Franklin County farmland used for nursery production, although it does include tobacco acreage, both of which could be converted to food production if market prices rose high enough, said Sloan. And if additional farmland is needed, the study points to converting some of the adjacent woodlots on many agricultural operations — particularly those that had produced food at one time.

“Quite frankly, if Franklin County isn’t able to have self-sufficiency, then we probably need to be concerned about the state and larger New England region,” Sloan said, pointing to the state’s most sparsely populated region with some of the best farming soils in the nation. “In farmland resources, we just about break even, and we have enough that we can could” be self-reliant. “Clearly, there’s an opportunity.”

The report also points out that slightly less than 25 percent of the county’s farmland is protected, and recommends steps that can be taken to ensure that suitable land isn’t lost to development. Yet it also points out that there are nearly 44,000 acres of agriculturally suitable soils that could potentially become farmland in the county — about 9 percent of the county’s total land area.

Nearly half of the county’s farm acreage, and the bulk of its pastureland and orchard area, is in West County, while the eastern part of the county has only about 12 percent.

In addition to guiding planners in making decisions and setting policies about farmland protection, the study serves as a way to get people thinking about farmland and food production from a security standpoint.

“We need to identify what makes sense in terms of growth patterns,” said Sloan. “If we have good farmland resources and only a certain percentage is protected, that’s an area we really need to prioritize and identify as we move forward so resources are devoted to that.”

“When we presented this analysis to the (Franklin Regional) Planning Board, members said, ‘Finally! We’ve been awaiting for this!” said land-use planner Mary Praus. In fact, board members were so enthusiastic about the study that they recommended that a similar analysis be done to look at the county’s woodland resources. There’s no money in the budget to undertake that kind of analysis yet.

Evelyn Lane, one of two Conway School students who worked on the regional analysis, said it’s the first of its kind. The Northampton study, she said, had looked at how backyard gardens and community gardens can be expanded to make that city more self-sufficient.

“One of most exciting findings for me in this study, personally, was my interview with Wheelview Farm,” said Lane, referring to the Shelburne livestock producer that has been successful at selling to a market around Boston that’s increasingly hungry for locally produced meats.

“They said their demand is through the roof,” Lane said. “That showed an opportunity for Franklin County. I was just very excited that this report highlights the fact there should be more attention given to local meat and dairy producers in Franklin County. There’s a very exciting potential for the county,” she said. “We didn’t know what we were going to find going into this. We were excited to see it.”

Assumptions

The analysis points to Wheelview as an example of using rotational grazing that’s one of the sustainable practices that were one of the study’s underlying assumptions. Another assumption is a change in people’s diets, as recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Harvard School of Public Health, increasing fruit, vegetable and fish consumption while reducing consumption of red meat.

But while the study focuses on growing here what grows best, and potentially being an exporter of farm products to urban and suburban parts of the region, it also points to the ability of farmers to extend their seasons, and to the need for facilities to help accomplish that so that local food can be made not only more available but also more affordable.

“People have been pretty surprised by the ability our farmers have to extend their seasons by use of hoop-houses and greenhouses, or by improving on-farm or shared storage,” said Philip Korman, executive director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture. The region consumes 10 to 14 percent local food, he said, and CISA’s goal is to double that in the next 20 years.

“We can now be eating locally over nearly the entire 12 months of the year,” said Korman, whose Deerfield-based nonprofit organization has been involved in looking at ways to expand needed infrastructure like milk processing, slaughterhouse and storage capacity.

“We’re trying to rebuild a system that was here 60-plus years ago. But as global and national agriculture became key competitors with local and regional agriculture, with help from cheap oil and the concentration of huge farms, local farming hit bottom that we’re now coming up from that.”

The 2007 USDA Census of Agriculture found that the number of farms has increased by 26 percent, although they were smaller, and the amount of land being farmed had grown by 7 percent since 2002.

If people are going to become accustomed to buying local food year-round, Korman said, it’s going to take schools buying products like winter squash and frozen vegetables that are being processed, stored and marketed with help from efforts like the Franklin County Community Development Corp.’s Greenfield Food Processing Center.

If that suggests there’s an economic development component to encouraging Franklin County to eat more of its own agricultural yield, say Sloan and Korman, it also points to a need to protect farmland and to make farming more economically viable — something that may happen if there’s a continued demand for more nutritious local foods, the new analysis says.

“Direct sale to larger, more affluent markets with growing demand for ‘locally’ produced food may draw larger profits than selling to a ‘local level,’ the study says. “Farmers can use these profits to maintain the economic viability of their farms, allowing these farms the financial security required to continue production for local sale.”

The new report will become what Sloan called “an action plan” to help guide development and protection of land, water and other resources. It may also help in applying for grant funding to see that those policies are carried out.

“It’s a little reassuring,” Korman said, “that if terrible things happen in the world, like climate change and the peak oil crisis, we do have a basic resource that’s totally finite and won’t be re-created: land.”

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