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A Full Plate Greets Agriculture Deputy Secretary In Western Mass

GREENFIELD, Mass. (WGGB) — Sometimes farmers have to go to Washington to make their case known, but in this instance, Washington is coming to the farm.  Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan is in the midst of a visit that’s taken her to Vermont and Massachusetts.  It’s a sort of homecoming for Merrigan, who was born in Pittsfield and grew up in Greenfield.  Among other concerns, she’s interested in how farms have been faring in the wake of Hurricane Irene.

“I saw a lot of community engagement.  Farmers are rebuilding.  They’re telling me their neighbors just came to the farm uninvited, moving boulders, doing whatever it took.  The courage, the resilience of the farming community in this area is astounding,” says Merrigan, who’s concurrently checking how farmers have been taking advantage of the USDA’s disaster assistance programs.

But her thoughts are future-focused as well.  With the average American farmer in his/her late 50s and thirty percent of farmers at 65 or older, Merrigan’s choice to meet with college students isn’t accidental.

“We’re in this huge transition time and we’re wondering who’s this generation of folks who are going to be on our working lands and produce our food.”

The answer to that question might be complex and gradual, but the lure of profitability always helps, and one small part of the potential solution could be happening around the corner.  The Franklin County Community Development Corporation is participating in a pilot program aimed at effectively extending the growing season for area farmers, while expanding their market.  If the idea is revolutionary, the means seems less so.

“This year we hope to freeze 100,000 pounds of local vegetables and distribute it up and down the Pioneer Valley,” says the Corporation’s president, Gary Gruber.

Simple enough.  If you can preserve harvested vegetables and stretch their use throughout the school year, says Gruber, you make it worth farmers’ while to grow more crops.  But another innovation is the availability of commercial-sized kitchens, for local entrepreneurs to develop and package recipes for sale.  Just during our brief visit, all kinds of crops were being processed for everything from ice cream fudge sauce to beverages, to hot sauces.

Why hasn’t this happened all along?

“Capital expenditure,” says Gruber.  “A farmer can’t afford to have a commercial kitchen, purchase the necessary equipment, and marketing – they’re farmers.  So, we’re trying to be the middle person and get the produce out…”

One destination for those products is, of course, schools.  One of the more obvious benefits is that locally grown produce can be sold fresher, but is that enough?  The folks in Washington are confident that the program, which Gruber says is happening in just a handful of locales across the country right now, will yield a different and worthwhile bounty for farmers.  As Gruber points out though, perhaps the real proof is the testimony of the most honest and austere customers.

“We did a pilot program for Holyoke last year, and we got letters from children, saying it was the best broccoli they ever ate.  Maybe the only broccoli they ever ate, but they ate it!”


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