Farmers from 4 counties wined and dined by Harold Grinspoon Foundation at Northampton celebration

By Mary C. Serreze | November 29, 2017

Read the Article on MassLive

"When we're pitching Western Massachusetts to the rest of the world, our talented and innovative farmers distinguish us," said Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow. "Our agriculture gives us a comparative advantage."

Lesser delivered brief remarks as farmers from Berkshire, Hampshire, Hampden, and Franklin Counties gathered for an evening of food, drink, and networking at Smith College.

Wednesday's feast and celebration was hosted by the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation with sponsorship from Big Y, Hood, Baystate Health, Farm Credit East, Sheraton Springfield, and the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts.

The gourmet offerings -- including cheeses and pates, smoked meats, roasted vegetables, salsas, roasted vegetables, and apple pies -- were sourced nearly completely from local farms and food producers, said Smith College Dining Director Andy Cox.

The purpose of the event was to honor the recipients of the Grinspoon Foundation's 2017 Local Farmer Awards, but every farmer who applied for the $2,500 grants was invited to attend, said program manager Cari Carpenter.

"In reading your applications, I was struck by how deeply each of you is committed to caring for the land," said Carpenter as the group settled in with coffee and pie.

The grants are designed to help farmers invest in small capital projects.

Prospect Meadow Farm in Hatfield used its grant to build an irrigation system to its back field, and install windows in its chicken barn, said farmer Christopher Ferrante.

"We used to use a bucket brigade to water the animals," he said. "Now our staff can use their time more productively."

As the ServiceNet farm, Prospect Meadow employs around 60 people with developmental and intellectual disabilities, he said.

Among other things, the farm keeps around 1,000 free-range chickens. The hens are happier with plenty of fresh water and natural light, which also extends the laying season, he said.

John Kokoski of Mapeline Farm in Hadley used his grant for a "curtain assembly in the heifer barn." The roll-up curtains cut down on drafts, and help keep his dairy cattle cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.

Elizabeth Vaughn, who runs Phoenix Fruit Farm in Belchertown, said her Grinspoon grant paid for clearing two acres of land to expand her orchard.

"We hired a guy to pull out stumps," she said. "And I'm planting peaches, nectarines, and pears. I've always had more demand than supply for peaches. And this will be my first time with nectarines."

Over dessert, attendees entertained each other with 90-second stories about farm life, and competed in a farm innovation idea contest.

Massachusetts Agricultural Commissioner John Lebeaux mingled with farmers who were eager to talk about policy, state regulations, challenges and opportunities.

Asked to name the biggest challenges facing Massachusetts farmers, Lebeaux told The Republican that the high cost of real estate remains at the top of the list. "Our APR (agricultural preservation restriction) program, which pays farmers the difference between the agricultural and market value of their land, does help with that," he said. 

Climate change was also named also a growing concern: "Many farmers were unprepared for last year's severe drought."

Finally, farmers could see new opportunities with the legalization of industrial hemp, Lebeaux said. While the state's Cannabis Control Commission is developing rules for recreational marijuana, the Department of Agriculture is in charge of crafting "a regulatory structure" for any hemp crop.

"The U.S. imports a lot of processed hemp," he said. "Hopefully we can start growing some of that in Massachusetts."

The Local Farmer Awards are the result of a collaboration between Harold Grinspoon and two regional "grow local" organizations -- Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture and Berkshire Grown.

"Grinspoon took us out for breakfast a few years back and pitched the idea," said Phil Korman, longtime director of CISA. "It's great for the farmers, because the application process is simple, and it's a quick turnaround. They're working hard enough as it is."

Learn more about Local Farmers Awards