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John Lebeaux is on a mission for Mass. farmers

John Lebeaux assumes the Baker administration’s top agricultural post at a time when the number of farms in Massachusetts has seen slight growth and the public’s appetite for locally grown food is on the rise. But challenges in farming persist. Though the “buy local” movement is good for Massachusetts growers, farmers are also dealing with global competition that threatens one of the state’s signature crops, and state and federal regulations that can be burdensome.

Governor Charlie Baker recently appointed Lebeaux, 60, who managed his family’s Shrewsbury nursery business for 26 years, to be commissioner of agricultural resources. Lebeaux will oversee regulation of the state’s agriculture activities as well as efforts to expand the industry by getting the state’s products into new markets.

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Lebeaux said his department will focus on increasing the number of jobs in agriculture by trying to increase the demand for farm products, though there are challenges to farmers here.

“It’s difficult to run a small business; it’s difficult to run a small agricultural business,” he said.

Farming in Massachusetts is often overshadowed by the technology, education, and health care sectors, and the state’s Department of Agricultural Resources spent just $36.5 million in 2013, or 0.11 percent of the state’s total budget that year. But the number of farms in Massachusetts is holding steady at 7,755, a slight increase from the number of farms in 2007, according to a 2012 census by the US Department of Agriculture.

Farmers said they were pleased with Baker’s pick because Lebeaux has worked in agriculture and is familiar with the challenges they face, and has experience in the public and private sectors.

“I think he’s a good thinker, a good people person who reaches out and gathers input on things and facilitates finding a solution,” said Douglas P. Gillespie, chairman of the Weston Board of Selectmen and former commissioner of agricultural resources. “I have a lot of confidence in him.”

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Lebeaux’s grandfather operated Buttonwood Farm, and his father established a garden center and nursery on a portion of the farm. Lebeaux grew up there, and after moving away, came back and worked at Shrewsbury Nurseries.

“It was a conscious decision my wife and I made to come back to Shrewsbury and join the family business,” Lebeaux said.

The nursery closed in 2008-09, which Lebeaux attributed to his father’s death, a rough economy, and the fact that his children weren’t interested in taking it over.

Lebeaux also has local government experience. He most recently was town administrator in Princeton, population 3,500, and a selectman in Shrewsbury. He has resigned in Princeton but will stay on as selectman. “I think it brings value to the commissioner’s position,” he said of his local government work.

Farmers hope that Lebeaux will keep them in mind as he decides how to implement regulations and promote the state’s farm products.

“We want to see an administration that can work with all of agriculture,” said A. Richard Bonanno, president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation.

Bonanno has known Lebeaux for 20 years, and the two met for lunch after Lebeaux’s appointment was announced. Bonanno said he was encouraged by their conversations, and that Lebeaux has a grasp of the issues farmers face.

“Whenever we can have a farmer in the commissioner’s office, we’re happier,” Bonanno said.

Lebeaux has served on the state’s Board of Food and Agriculture and was the general manager of Shrewsbury Nurseries. He is past president of the Massachusetts Nursery and Landscape Association and serves on the Massachusetts Water Resources Commission. He ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in 2008.

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Lebeaux, a Republican, doesn’t know Baker personally, but his family and the family of Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito both hail from Shrewsbury and have had a long friendship, he said. He has donated $1,500 to Baker and Polito in the past two years.

Gillespie, the former commissioner, warned that Lebeaux won’t have a lot of flexibility to set an agenda because he’ll have to deal with a tight budget. Lebeaux will have to find a balance that allows for appropriate regulations governing things such as animal health, pesticide applications, and the sale of raw milk, without unduly burdening farmers, Gillespie said.

The public’s increased interest in buying local allows greater opportunities for farmers to sell directly to consumers through farm shares and public markets, which helps farmers, Gillespie said. “If you can cut out the middleman, you can do OK as a Massachusetts farmer,” he said.

While the number of farms has increased, Gillespie said the industry faces challenges, including a worldwide cranberry supply that surpasses demand. Other challenges farmers face include compliance with complex federal regulations and water bans imposed by growing towns.

“Lots of little things, but they all add up to making it really challenging,” Gillespie said.

Lebeaux, who is married and has three adult children, has interests outside of agriculture, too. He has a bachelor’s degree from Trinity College in English and theater, and spent time acting in New York City. He appeared in an uncredited role in the 1977 TV movie “The Deadliest Season,” which starred Meryl Streep. There isn’t much overlap between acting and agriculture, but he also worked in a nursery in New York and was able to pursue both passions there.

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“People like to do all kinds of different things,” he said.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, the size of the budget of the state Department of Agricultural Resources was mischaracterized in an earlier version of this story.