Think farm states and the cornfields of Iowa probably come to mind. Or the Dakotas’ endless waves of grain. Or Idaho and its famous potatoes.
Probably not Massachusetts, though. High-tech? You bet. Colleges? Flying mortarboards are a spring hazard. Kennedys? A whole toothy compound full, all named after one another.
But if you haven’t thought of the Bay State as a place where farming has (re)taken root, it’s time to think again.
There are about 7,700 farms in Massachusetts, employing some 12,000 workers and contributing about $492 million to the state economy, says Richard Sullivan, secretary of energy and environmental affairs.
On Wednesday, the farm world came to the State House for Agriculture Day, touting Bay State produce and products — and bringing with them some exceedingly tasty samples.
Like, say, cheese. It turns out more than 100 different cheeses are crafted here, which makes this state a rival to that heavyweight champion of cheese, Vermont. That’s according to Pam Robinson, treasurer of the Massachusetts Cheese Guild, which boasts 21 artisan cheesemakers.
“The only difference is we don’t have any cheap cheese,” she said.
“No cheap cheese?”
“Sheep cheese.” Oh. Sheep cheese. Well, why didn’t you say so the first time?
Mind you, farming isn’t just for laconic men in overalls anymore. Thirty-two percent of farms in Massachusetts are owned by women. The state’s pastoral sector has developed an idealistic energy all its own, one that seems to have real appeal to the young.
The buy-local ethos has given Massachusetts agriculture a big boost. You see it in the flowering of farmers’ markets, farmstands, and pick-your-own places. And in the farm-to-table restaurant trend and farm-to-fork home-eating. There’s also a farm-to-school program to encourage cafeterias to put local produce on students’ plates. And community-supported agriculture, where you buy a share and receive a steady supply of locally grown food.
Bay State agriculture even has a charitable side. For example, Boston Area Gleaners, a Waltham nonprofit, enlists some 700 volunteers to pick surplus crops on 40 local farms, produce that then goes to programs that feed those in need. (They’d love more farms and volunteers.)
So what has put the charm in the local farm?
“People increasingly want to know where their food comes from,” says Kelly Coleman, program director for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, one of the state’s eight buy-local organizations. “It’s fresher, it tastes better, and you are supporting the local economy, your local community, and your neighbors.”
Add to that these reasons to buy local. Massachusetts farms help preserve more than half a million acres of land as open space. And those farms, which are mostly small operations, don’t employ the objectionable practices of big factory farms.
“That is not an issue here,” says Greg Watson, Massachusetts commissioner of agriculture.
The Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals largely agrees. Still, the MSPCA and the Humane Society are pushing legislation to ban crowded “battery cages” for hens as well as small gestation crates for pigs and movement-restricting veal crates for calves. Only one Massachusetts farm uses battery cages. None uses pig or veal crates; the animal-welfare organizations simply want to ensure that that doesn’t change.
So how can a city dweller buy local conveniently?
Here’s some good news for Boston, which already has at least eight seasonal farmers’ markets: A year-round indoor public market opens (at least partially) this year on Blackstone Street, a block or so from the Union Oyster House.
Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resource’s website is full of buy-local information, including a smart map of what’s available where.
But one should also be a nudge to get supermarkets and grocery stores to buy local.
“People should always ask their stores about locally grown food,” says Barbara Zheutlin of Berkshire Grown, a Great Barrington organization that promotes the area’s agriculture. “If people ask, the storekeepers will know there is a demand.”
And now, if you’ll pardon me, I have some artisanal cheese to eat.