Of the Earth: Study shows declining farms, but hope in the next generation

  • The 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture gathered statistics on the number of farms in each Massachusetts county, their acreage and combined sales. Franklin County possesses the largest percentage of farmland of all the counties in the state. Courtesy image/Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources


For the Recorder
Published: 5/7/2019 12:10:49 PM

A quiet shutter of dread rippled through the ag community recently when the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture was released.

The census is released every five years, and represents a massive collection of data that can be, with some perseverance, broken down by state and county. As with any such report, it’s possible to draw all kinds of valuable conclusions from the data, and even easier to draw weird and erroneous conclusions. The entire 830-page document is available as a PDF here (bit.ly/2GGNVMP).

The dread arose from indications that the number of farms in Massachusetts in 2017 declined from 7,755 to 7,241 since the previous survey in 2012, while total acres being worked declined from 523,517 to 491,653. That’s an agricultural exodus of over 6 percent. At the same time, the value of ag land jumped slightly from $10,430 per acre to $10,894 per acre over the same period, with the average farm in Massachusetts valued at $739,711.

That, incidentally, makes the state’s farm land just about the priciest in the nation, rivaled only by California, New Jersey and Connecticut — the national average being about $3,140 an acre.

In outlining its response to the survey, the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation President Mark Amato said “We were disappointed, but not surprised, to learn that the number of farming operations in Massachusetts have decreased from 2012 to 2017 by about 500 farms. ... With a crippling drought a few years ago, increasing expenses and increasingly tough regulations, agriculture in the Commonwealth has been hard hit.”

At the same time, however, Amato pointed to several positive data points that may have more relevance to Franklin County and to its particular agricultural heritage, aside from concern over the broader trends. In other words, the census shows strength in some of the ways that have made Franklin County farming uniquely strong in recent years:

■There were 3,538 new producers in the state, farming 126,026 acres.

■There were 5,572 women producers working 284,208 acres.

■204 organic farms in Massachusetts accounted for a jump in organic sales, up $32.8 million in 2017.

■Operations harvesting renewable energy increased to 1,435 from just 465 in 2012.

■There were 1,238 “young producers,” or farmers 35 years old or younger, farming 73,389 acres in Massachusetts.

■Small farms seem to be thriving. The only category of farm showing a major gain — over 25 percent since 2012 — are those of nine acres or less.

According to the state Department of Agricultural Resources, there are now 820 farms in Franklin County, accounting for 88,247 acres and almost $69 million in revenue. That’s up from 712 farms the last time I looked, and it makes Franklin County by far the most agricultural region in the state.

And when I look at the now-greening landscape of Franklin County, and at area farmers markets, I see farms that are increasingly being run by a new generation of young farmers; farms being worked by women; organic farms; and farms that are integrating renewable energy components. You could, with some adjustment, apply all those characteristics to an operation like Atlas Farm in Deerfield, which has succeeded by innovation, developing a non-predatory kind of vertical integration that covers everything from seedlings to retail marketing.

Most of all, I see that younger farmers have returned to Franklin County not largely because they have to, but because they want to. These are folks who have a good education, broad experience, lots of far-flung interests and passions, and lots of other opportunities ... but who remain compelled by both the heritage and future of Franklin County.

Consider, among others, Red Fire Farm in Montague, the Ciesluk-Antonellis farm in Deerfield, Kleeberg Farm in Greenfield, Clarkdale Fruit Farms, Warner Farm in Sunderland, Upingill Farm in Gill, Thomas Farm in Sunderland, the Farm School in Athol – all being substantially run by a new generation.

In the last year, we’ve written about some of these folks, and will, in coming weeks interview others ... and we welcome your additions to this abbreviated list.

The Cutting Board: What? No recipe? Nope ... the recipe inbox is empty. Can you help out?

Wesley Blixt lives in Greenfield. He is a longtime reporter and is the author of “SKATERS: A Novel.” Send him recipes, stories and suggestions at wesleyblixt@me.com.

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