Bureau chief says farmers speaking together can be heard

Pigs are among the animals that figure large on Martha's Vineyard farms. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

About 40 Martha’s Vineyard farmers and others interested in local farming gathered at The FARM Institute on February 2 to discuss farm issues. Featured guests were Brad Mitchell, director of government affairs for the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation (MFBF), and Leo Cakounes, Harwich farmer and president of the Cape & Islands Farm Bureau (CIFB), closely related with MFBF.

Mr. Mitchell pointed out that Massachusetts farmers are about one percent of the population. “We’re not a large group. If we don’t speak together, we won’t be heard,” he said.

High on the farmers’ priorities that Thursday afternoon was legislation that would enable more local slaughter and processing of four-legged animals. Thanks to the Island Grown Initiative and others, there is now a mobile processing system for poultry on the Island, but there are only two USDA red meat processing facilities in the state, both in northern Massachusetts. For farmers to raise sheep, cattle, or pigs commercially on Martha’s Vineyard, they must truck the animals off Island, which entails a ferry ride and a long drive, not only expensive but also stressful for the animals.

According to Mr. Mitchell, the Massachusetts Department of Health (DPH) is “not good for farmers.” It has been a stumbling block in enabling local slaughtering. The DPH, according to Mr. Mitchell, does not understand agriculture well, and it tends to see itself as a gatekeeper, rejecting every proposal. The MFBF has been working with legislators to promote a bill (HB 3351, Rep. Stephen Kulik) which would combine state and federal oversight of slaughter, cutting, and packing within the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture (DAR). The USDA would pay half the cost of the new program. The new program would eliminate the DPH “bottleneck” of regulatory uncertainly that currently prevents the creation of local facilities. Maine, Vermont, and Connecticut have passed similar legislation.

The MFBF has also lobbied for HB 1114 (also Representative Kulik), a bill to subject local board of health regulations on farms to approval by an Agricultural Review Board, which would be made up of experts in both public health and agriculture. Mr. Mitchell called some Massachusetts BOH regulations “inappropriate.”

Another bill (HB 1995, Rep. Anne Gobi) would allow farmers to deliver raw milk to their customers (presently raw milk can be sold only at the farm where it is produced). “No person shall sell, distribute, provide or offer for consumption to the public any raw milk elsewhere than on a dairy farm where that raw milk was produced provided that to such farm a Certificate of Raw Milk for Retail Sale has been issued by the Commissioner. For the purposes of these Regulations the term ‘offer for consumption’ shall include any sampling of milk by the public or offering of samples to the public.” Mr. Mitchell said that HB 1995 has about a 25 percent change of passage this year, which he considered good odds, considering that there are thousands of bills.

One farmer asked about “food sovereignty.” A few towns in Maine have declared that their local agricultural regulations supersede state and federal rules. Mr. Mitchell responded that food sovereignty, probably not legal, is not a promising avenue to pursue.

Another house bill (HB 3554, Rep. Carolyn Dykema) supported by MFBF would expand the existing three percent tax credit, now available to incorporated farms and fishing operations, to those which are not incorporated. The majority of Massachusetts farms and many small fishing operations are not incorporated.

The farmers also discussed the cost of transportation on SSA ferries. Some proposed SSA discounts on farm products and supplies traveling in both directions. One potential conflict is that feed shipped to farmers at a discounted ferry rate would be unfair to stores like SBS which sell feed and pay the full rate. Mr. Cakounes suggested that such negotiations are the kinds of things the CIFB can help with.

In explaining the difference between the MFBF and the CIFB, Mr. Cakounes said that MFBF works on the state-wide level, particularly in dealing with the state legislature. Local farm bureaus such as his, he said, deal with local issues such as problems with neighbors or town regulations. Both stressed that their bureaus should not be confused with the American Farm Bureau, a national lobbyist which tends to respond to the demands of huge agribusinesses, “Big Ag,” and sometimes works against the interests of small farmers.

Both groups are membership-driven. Policies and lobbying initiatives must come from the membership, not from the leadership. In response to a question about banning genetically modified organisms from the food chain, Mr. Mitchell said, “We promote ideas that 95 percent of our members want. Although a small group of activists want to ban GMOs or pesticides, we’re probably not going to support that.”

By a show of hands, few of the farmers in attendance belonged to either the MFBF or the CIFB. Membership in one gets you membership in the other. One member said that he saves the $160 membership fee by a discount of his insurance from Farm Family Insurance Company.