Another way to support local farms

  • The former Heath School. RECORDER FILE PHOTO

Published: 10/4/2019 9:41:42 AM

Heath residents are now grappling with the outcome of not selling the former school to a marijuana grower, who would have provided many jobs and a positive cash flow of over $100,000 per year to the town coffers.

Now what to do with a 25,000 square-foot building? The closest same-sized building used for town offices is Pittsfield, with 42,000 residents. Heath has 700.

Meting out its rooms piecemeal to different entities does not come close to covering the costs of heating, insuring, electrical, plowing, ongoing maintenance, and personnel to maintain the building — plus making town government a landlord with all the liability issues that accompany such a position.

Recently the Recorder featured an excellent week-long series on farming in Western Mass. The one glaring component that does not exist in the area is a USDA approved abattoir. Heath, like many small towns, is a right-to-farm community. Many hilltowns only had farming as the main source of earning a wage. Western Mass. has a unique and growing relationship with small-scale farming, well suited for this area. For those involved in raising animals for food, there is no option to take them to a USDA approved processing plant in all of Western Mass. The closest ones are in Vt., N.Y. and Central Mass.

The longer the drive to these facilities, the more cost of transportation, and increased stress on the animals. A second trip is also needed to obtain the finished product.

Turning the ex-school into a cooperative processing plant is a win on multiple platforms:

Location: The building is set away from any neighborhood, not visible from the main access road. That major road is 8A, which is newly paved and can accommodate vehicles bringing livestock. It has acres of land for pasturing and pens.

Size: at 25,000 square feet, it can handle a large amount of stock, keeping different animals separate and less stressed. It has a commercial-grade kitchen, and similar to the food processing cooperative in Greenfield could be used by members to further process their products for commercial sale. As of now, anyone processing their own animals or milk products cannot sell them as they have no USDA certification.

Increasing support for local farms: we all know the dairy industry is slowly dying. This also affects haying, as there is less need for hay with fewer animals. By having this facility in the area, it would foster growth of raising animals. This in turn supports many other businesses besides giving local farms a place to further support their endeavors, from farming equipment, crop growing, local employment, and keeping land from development.

A retail outlet can be set-up to sell value added products, while keeping overhead costs low and shared by the coop members. Grants and programs for non-profit businesses from the USDA, private and state agencies can help with the financing needed for conversion of the building. The time is now to develop this project as interest in farming in the area is strong, and with a cooperative owned processing facility here in Western Mass. can only help enhance and strengthen our small scale family farms.

Bob Bourke, a resident of Heath, has been involved in over a dozen various town committees, boards, and organizations.


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