We are going to have to gather up the fragments of knowledge and responsibilities that have been turned over to governments, corporations, and specialists, and put those fragments back together again in our own minds and in our families and household and neighborhoods.
Wendell Berry

It’s getting busy, and we are all consumed with the day-to-day tasks that propel the frantic summer season. As my to-do list fills up, I cannot help but think back to a rainy day in late February that may impact my future a lot more than the shipment of dahlia cuttings or my propane bill. Not only my future, but perhaps yours as well, so I want to take this space to share some of these thoughts with all of you.

It was with a bit of trepidation that Mike and I joined the sixty or so farmers, land trust board members, state leaders and non-profit leaders at a “Farm 2.0: RI Farming in the 21st Century” conference. Fortunately, the weather was late-winter dreadful, sleety rain driving down, so we were grateful not to be outside working. But would the day be useful, would it make a difference? Although it is too early to tell, I think the answer may well be yes, and I think the issues addressed are worth talking to the whole region about, as Rhode Island is but a microcosm of our shared concerns.

A short list of these shared issues:
• protecting our remaining farmland
• keeping farmland affordable for farmers
• keeping farmland in agricultural use
• enabling farmers who farm protected farmland to build equity in their operation
• keeping agriculture economically viable
• building community understanding of, and support for, farming activities

One day was hardly enough to tackle it all, but we had a super list of regional leaders there as resources from Long Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. We were organized into brainstorm sessions on each of the above topics, and each person could attend two of the sessions. I want to share with you two of what I consider to be the best ideas that you can bring to discussions with your fellow farmers and communities.

The development pressure on farmland may have somewhat abated in the last year and a half, but it will continue to be truly dire as more farmers age out of active production and prices for land continue to rebound. All agreed there needs to be serious work done to reform regulations around not only transfer of land between generations (how soon are inheritance taxes due? at what rate?) but what does it really mean to purchase development rights to farmland and what restrictions can be made to ensure that that purchase does keep the land in agriculture? In Rhode Island, our development right program really only ensures open space, and frequently the land is priced out of the range of new farmers and is instead sold for its “estate” value. Sound familiar? Massachusetts is tackling this with provisions that make the state have the right to disallow the sale of protected farms to other than actual farmers. (More at http://www.mass.gov/agr/landuse/APR/index.htm). With luck, this will work. What provisions does your state have?

More to the point for the local issues, one of the best ideas that I heard was about increasing the community awareness of farming through an Agricultural Commission. Maybe you have one or another town board where issues relating to farms can be reviewed, and heard. If you do, I encourage you to find out more about it, or look into working with it at least in the off-season. Here in Rhode Island, there are none. We heard from Peter Westover of Massachusetts about the difference it can make when the zoning and planning boards can really hear from farmers about the issues facing your town. Here’s an overview from him:

• AgComs represent the farming community, encourage the pursuit of agriculture, promote agricultural economic development and protect farmlands and farm businesses, and preserve, revitalize and sustain agricultural businesses and land.
• In some communities they focus on farmland preservation efforts, while in others they review regulatory proposals developed by other town boards (planning board, board of health, conservation commission, etc), or provide marketing coordination to assist all farms in town.
• Others have played key roles in mediating farmer/neighbor disputes, or simply providing referrals for farmers needing better information.
• By working within town government through an AgCom, farmers enhance their credibility, and are viewed as part of the problem-solving team.

Here’s more information: http://www.massagcom.org/starting/starting.html

Mike and I have already spoken to our town planner, and we are excited to make an agriculture commission happen in our town. As one member of my brainstorming session said “I’m on the planning board, and we have a conservation commission, a historical commission, a wind power commission, and so on. Agriculture is the only segment of town NOT being heard.”

This matters to all of us, even if, as is the case for me, you have only a few acres and/or don’t see yourself as “agriculture”. We need other farmers in the farmers’ markets and stores, in our towns, and for our economy. We are farmers, or we benefit from farms. It’s that simple.

Yeah, yeah, I know, you’re BUSY. We’re all busy. But look what’s been happening to our farms while we weren’t doing anything about it. Can we really afford to keep this trend going? In Rhode Island, we have lost 80% of our farms since 1945. Don’t let this happen to you. These are two ideas worth spreading around, maybe to your customer on the planning board or your contacts at the state level, but worth at least talking about.

Now, back to flowers! The Regional Meeting this year will be in Ithaca, New York, July 19-20. More information to follow later.

Diane Szukovathy

Jello Mold Farm

Diane Szukovathy Jello Mold Farm Contact at [email protected]