Great Barrington, Ma – The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources says there are over 2,500 farms in the western part of the state, generating 140 million dollars in revenue every year. Our Berkshire Bureau Chief Charlie Deitz reports the agency predicts the agricultural industry will only grow in the next few years, and they're looking for ways to partner with local business chambers
Small farms are on the rise in the commonwealth, and farmers are finding more ways to become profitable. That's according to Scott Soares, the commissioner for the Department of Agricultural resources. He spoke at Crissey Farms in Great Barrington about the several factors pushing consumers to buy from local farmers "People are more concerned with environmental health, and best practices in food production."
The demand has also been fueled by recent Salmonella outbreaks, a public desire for better quality foods, and people's attachment to their local economies. Barbara Zheutlin is the Director for Berkshire Grown, the county's lead on pushing locally grown products. Her group just received a 9 thousand dollar state grant to continue the mission "another reason we believe in supporting and buying local is to keep the Berkshire farmers farming and the fabulous landscapes, we want to support those."
The MDAR says Berkshire County has over 500 farms, adding 30 million dollars to the county's economy. Soares says the paychecks are starting to improve too "Another interesting stat from a later report says net farm income in spite of economy saw a 64 percent increase."
Berkshire Chamber President Mike Supranowicz says they launched a Buy in The Berkshires Campaign last year which targets tourists and residents, so a partnership with the MDAR as well as local farmers fits right into the vision "How do we help identify the farmers market? We have to pull it all together under the buy in the Berkshires program."
In fact farmers markets across the state saw their biggest boom last year, numbering 160 in 2008, to just over 200 in 2009, and on the way up. Soares says farm related businesses are seeing major growth as well, from farm to school programs, to processing value added products like jellies or wines and cheeses. Agritourism also had a banner year last year, netting over 5 million in revenue statewide "The important thing to recognize it's an 800 percent increase."
Soares says strategic partnerships with local business chambers will help farms to be seen as small businesses, and not just commodity producers that happen to take up a lot of room in the area "We have to broaden the definition of agriculture, this isn't your grandfather's farm."
Soares concedes there are still challenges unique to Massachusetts farmers, like having the third highest acreage prices at 12 thousand dollars per acre, but the Mass. Dept of Agricultural Resources is putting resources on line to help farmers and related businesses to navigate today's economic waters.