Scenic view of farm operation amid fall color foliage Ashley_Minkus/Getty Images
PRESERVING AG: Gubernatorial candidates having differing perspectives on keeping agriculture strong in Massachusetts.

4 Massachusetts gubernatorial candidates talk farming

Amid food system issues, the four candidates weigh in on Massachusetts ag issues.

The four candidates for Massachusetts governor — incumbent Charlie Baker, Jay Gonzalez, Scott Lively and Bob Massie — responded to a Massachusetts Food Systems Collaborative survey regarding agriculture, food access, farmland protection and other food system issues. You can find their responses regarding Massachusetts’ Local Food Action Plan online. Their responses specifically on farm issues follow:

What role should state government play in reducing farmland loss and protecting farmland? What tools or programs would you support to do so?
• Baker: Our administration via the Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program helps to protect Massachusetts’ farmlands from development. We are committed to supporting the Commonwealth’s hardworking farmers and its agricultural industry, including over two dozen farms and 1,600 acres since 2015.

We launched the Stewardship Assistance and Restoration on APRs, a new program at the Department of Agriculture, to help enhance APR’s mission by supporting farmers working to restore and prepare lands for agricultural use. The APR Improvement Program has awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars to assist active commercial farms in improving productivity and profitability. And, the Farm Viability Enhancement Program continues to provide grants and expertise for management and planning of farm growth and long-term sustainability.

Our Energy and Environmental Affairs’ secretariat has also worked through the Conservation Partnership Grant Program to award hundreds of thousands of dollars for protecting hundreds of acres for public access, wildlife preservation and agricultural purposes.

We remain committed to working with and supporting our farmers and agricultural industry, recognizing the significant impact they have in preserving over a half-million acres of open space, employing tens of thousands of people, and driving nearly a half-billion in economic activity.

• Gonzalez: As governor, I would support the state’s Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) program and examine our current system of taxation for farmland and livestock. I would also work with local officials to ensure farmland value is based on land value and not sales value.

We need to also recognize the role that non-traditional farmers play in protecting our land. Composting is among the best actions people can take to protect our environment and create nutrient-rich soil, all while diverting waste from landfills. I believe we need a significant marketing campaign to raise awareness of the benefits and ease of composting and launch an ambitious effort to expand composting across the state.

I realize I am not an expert in all things farming. That is why as a candidate I have begun the process of educating myself on these issues. Early in my campaign I met with farmers in the western part of the state who shared their ideas and concerns, and I will stay in close touch with stakeholders from the agricultural community.

• Lively: I write my own policy statements, the downside of which is the time factor. In lieu of answering your questionnaire point by point, allow me to say that I fully agree with and endorse Massachusetts’ Local Food Action Plan four goals.

My policy priority in this area is reestablishment of agrarian green belts of family farms surrounding and in symbiosis with towns which in turn have reestablished light industry. The goal is to maximize community self-sufficiency and local control.

I believe strongly in natural foods, locally grown and integrated with the markets and restaurants, including fish and animal food products harvested through humane processes. Additionally, my plan for liberating the inner cities from government dependency through entrepreneurialism includes the formation of a 100% profit-sharing cooperative corporation, staffed entirely by inner-city worker/owners, which makes ready-to-eat meals using locally grown ingredients.

• Massie: Massachusetts state government is well positioned to assist in the protection of farmland, once it is committed to that goal.

Massachusetts’ APR Program is essential to protection of farmland. But the program has not

been modified in 40 years. I agree it is time to update and expand this program. For example, statewide mapping of agricultural land, soil quality and habitats could allow us to target important and vulnerable land areas and work with local land trusts and landowners to fill the gaps. Finding ways to support local land trusts, cluster development and farm easements can expand the impact of these strategies.

As governor, I will start by creating a cabinet undersecretary for agricultural economy. I would charge that office with coordinating and updating existing state programs, regulations and policies to support land conservation. The creation of a state bank could be useful for assisting local land trusts through loan guarantees. Zoning reform is necessary to protect farmland from development and eliminating “approval not required” development along our scenic roadways. We would review tax policy for impacts on long term farmland preservation.

What role should state government play in helping farmers improve profitability, develop new products and markets, and address environmental challenges? What would you do to address the severe economic challenges that the Commonwealth’s dairy farms face?
• Baker: We remain committed to working with and supporting our agricultural industry and all our farmers, recognizing the significant impact they have in preserving over a half-million acres of open space, employing tens of thousands of people, and driving nearly a half-billion in economic activity. As mentioned above, we have worked to support and enhance the mission of the Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program to preserve farmlands from development, restore agricultural use, and improve productivity, sustainability, growth and profitability.

Earlier this year, we awarded $500,000 in grants through a new Agricultural Climate Resiliency & Efficiencies (ACRE) Program created to help the farming industry both mitigate and adapt to hanging climate conditions. This program was created via Executive Order 569, directing the establishment of an integrated strategy for climate change adaptation across the Commonwealth, including a statewide Hazard Mitigation and Adaptation Plan for protecting residents, communities and local economies. The Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness program was also created to fund community-driven efforts to identify hazards and develop strategies to improve resilience. Earlier this year we also filed climate resiliency legislation to enact these programs into law, and invest over $1.4 billion in infrastructure to safeguard residents, municipalities and businesses from the impacts of climate change and protect environmental resources.

We were proud to initiate funding for the Massachusetts Food Ventures Program which has provided over $1.5 million to increase and sustain capacity for local food producers, while addressing access to healthy foods and economic opportunity through food ventures and enterprises. In our two most recent capital budget plans, we have been proud to commit $2 million for the Massachusetts Food Trust program to encourage economic opportunities in the food sector, while expanding healthy food options to underserved communities.

We have also encouraged and directed our Housing and Economic Development secretariat, MassDevelopment and the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation to include agriculture in their support and grant programs.

• Gonzalas: The governor has a tremendous bully pulpit. As governor, I would use it to support the farming industry. My administration would meet regularly with farmers and others in the local food movement to identify ways we could be supportive. I would also work to make progress on many of the recommendations in the plan. Specifically, as it relates to the dairy industry, I would support the following actions:

-Action 2.2.6: Develop regulations to facilitate dairy farms’ capacity to sell raw milk and related value-added products direct to consumers while ensuring adequate oversight to protect safety and consumer confidence.

-Action 2.2.8: Work with the congressional delegations of Massachusetts and other New England states to advocate for changes in the federal dairy pricing structure so that it is more sensitive to the needs of Massachusetts dairy farms.

• Massie: This would be a key priority for my administration. Our economic development policy would focus on small, local, and sustainable businesses, with particular focus on food businesses. As governor, I will create an agricultural economy office and cabinet undersecretary to focus on sustainable resource-based businesses. The secretary would begin immediately with a listening tour across the state, to learn from producers and communities about what is needed. The office would be charged with expanding and supporting these industries through grants, technical assistance, regulatory and permitting assistance, relationship building, public outreach and institutional contracting.

The small farm as a stand-alone business is an old-fashioned and risky proposition. Instead, we need to understand the complex interdependent economic ecosystem of regional farms, workers, markets, consumers and communities. There are many examples of local farming operations creating local or regional brands that help to increase prices of products sold and demand for those products (e.g., Napa wines, Damariscotta Maine oysters, Idaho potatoes) and supporting local Massachusetts farmers in brand creation could be part of that strategy.

Farmers also need access to affordable reliable high-speed internet. We would provide that through municipal utilities. Cheap renewable power and quality transportation infrastructure are essential. Access to grants and loans, agricultural research, networking and logistics support are all needed. Continuing education, and tax, estate and retirement planning should be available to all farmers. Expansion of facilities, including slaughterhouses and food processing facilities located inside Massachusetts are critical to maintaining and expanding farm businesses.

Institutional contracts are needed guarantee yearly income streams. All these things can be facilitated and supported at the state government level. No other institution has the reach, convening power, policy making and regulatory powers and above all public purpose to support the aims of sustainability, food justice, public health and prosperity for all.

In addition, we need to start a long-term plan for integrating and balancing the three economic sectors with claims on rural land: farming and forestry, tourism and energy production. Careful, inclusive planning could insure successful and supportive co-existence. But a competitive approach will damage all three sectors.

Source: Massachusetts Food System Collaborative

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