BOSTON – State Senator Benjamin B. Downing (D - Pittsfield), announces that the Massachusetts Senate today approved a comprehensive agricultural package. The bill, An Act to promote agriculture in the Commonwealth, sponsored by Senator Ann Gobi (D-Spencer) provides opportunities and protections to current and prospective farmers throughout Massachusetts, increases access and availability of locally grown food products, and invests in educational and agricultural programs to further grow the industry.
There are 7,755 farms in Massachusetts working on over 523,000 acres to produce $492 million in agricultural products. Massachusetts farms provide employment to nearly 28,000 workers in the Commonwealth. 80% of Massachusetts farms are family owned. 95% fit the category of “small farms” according to the USDA definition of sales below $250,000. Massachusetts ranks 6th in the nation for number of farms with Community Supported Agriculture (CSA); a 95% increase since 2007. Over this same time period the state saw growth in agri-tourism sales of 127%. At nearly $48 million, the state ranks 5th in the nation for direct market sales and 3rd in the nation for direct market sales per operation. Direct market sales account for 10% of the state’s total sales of agricultural products.
Last spring, Downing hosted several members of the Joint Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, including Chairwoman Gobi, on a tour of farms in his district to highlight the importance of agriculture to the regional and statewide economy.
"Promoting and supporting local agriculture is good for the economy, the environment and our health,” said Senator Downing. “This legislation will give our farmers the tools needed to continue producing the quality agricultural products that people have come to expect when they see something is grown, raised or made in Massachusetts."
The legislation reflects recommendations from the Massachusetts Local Food Action Plan, finalized in December 2015. The legislation utilizes state-owned land for non-commercial community gardens and farmers markets. It also incorporates a provision originally filed by Senator Downing authorizing farmer-distillers to sell their products at farmers markets.
To incentivize farmers and drive local food production, the bill eases regulatory restrictions that may currently inhibit agricultural modernization by establishing commissions to assess the management of state protected farmland and the agricultural plumbing code. Other changes include extending the license durations for foresting and timber harvesting and integrating rain sensor devices into the state building code.
Providing a boost to Massachusetts Dairies, the bill establishes a regulatory framework for the allowance of off-premise raw milk distribution, including through CSA agreements. Massachusetts will join sixteen other states to allow raw milk distribution including Connecticut, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire.
To promote job growth and support Massachusetts veterans, the bill creates the Massachusetts Veterans and Warriors to Agriculture Program Fund. The fund’s purpose is to integrate veterans into the field of agriculture and support veterans currently working in the industry. The fund will provide loans and grants to public, private and charitable entities to finance projects that work towards this purpose.
A retained revenue account for the Department of Agricultural Resources, in conjunction with the Agricultural Resolve and Security Fund, will contribute to the funding of various educational and innovative initiatives to promote food growth and security. Aiming to protect crops, the bill also establishes liability of up to three times the assessed value to any individual who causes damage or destruction to crops or agricultural property.
The bill now goes to the House of Representatives for their consideration.