Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources Commissioner John Lebeaux made his annual visit to the Berkshires on Tuesday. Appointed by Governor Charlie Baker in 2015, Lebeaux – the grandson of a farmer – has spent years working with his father in their family nurseries in Shrewsbury and is a certified horticulturist. He was a chosen person in Shrewsbury as well as a member of the Massachusetts Food and Agriculture Council, and served two terms as president of the Massachusetts Nursery and Landscape Association. WAMC spoke with Lebeaux in Stockbridge about his visit to four farms in southern Berkshire County.
LEBEAUX: Our department’s mission is to keep Massachusetts’ food supply safe and secure, and to maintain Massachusetts agriculture economically and environmentally sound. So we do this through various programs, both regulatory and promotional. We give a lot of subsidies to farmers. So we’re active, and here we are today with Berkshire Grown. We deal with the various local buying groups all over the state, and they are kind of our eyes and ears and help us navigate the individual region. And they showed us great things today.
WAMC: Then explain that to me. What did you see when you visited southern Berkshire today?
Well, today we saw that the focus was on the farms where the farmers don’t own the property. And that’s a big … You all know here and especially in the south of County Berkshire the land values are so high that it is sometimes very difficult, unless it is like a family farm handed down , for new young beginner farmers to acquire land. So we met farmers who have …. A lot of times it’s just a handshake with an interested landowner who might want to support this activity. But it’s a big challenge these days, and we’ve heard from some farmers today who would like to have a little more certainty.
So from your perspective and your position, what is the best way to support farmers in this position?
Well, I mean, the easiest thing to say is that consumers do business with one of our local farmers. I don’t think you necessarily have to find those who don’t own the land. But that’s what makes the farm viable and puts money in their pocket. And in some cases they are hoping to acquire the land they are currently leasing or on which they have this agreement, or in some cases are looking for more. And frankly, sometimes a long term lease would be satisfactory, in some cases preferred. But they need that certainty because if you want to make improvements to the property, to the infrastructure, to the ground, you want to be able to take full advantage of them. So support your local farmer.
Now, at the state level, how does the Berkshire farming community fit into the overall vision for agriculture in Massachusetts?
Well, we have a huge preponderance of dairy farms here because dairy farms require a lot of land. And there are certainly many in the county of Berkshire. One of our main agricultural counties in the state is Berkshire County. I think it’s about 20% of the state’s annual farm value. We’re making, statewide, about half a billion dollars a year, a little less than that. I think it’s in the $ 90 million range, about 20%, I believe, for Berkshire. So a preponderant – I mean, we see a lot of dairy here, but a lot of product. It’s a very wide range of products that are being shipped to everything, well, not just statewide, but region-wide.
Now, are the concerns and issues you hear from farmers today in the Berkshires similar to what you hear from farmers across the state? Are they distinct from the region? How to integrate?
Well, I mean real estate values in Massachusetts are expensive, but in an area where there’s competition for vacation homes, second homes, so Bristol County the same way, but the county of Berkshire is certainly a bit of a poster for that. It is therefore something unique. However, I think the second thing we heard a lot today was about the workforce, the difficulty of sometimes keeping the workforce from year to year. And that’s statewide, it’s a problem. Work is a problem. To get a good workforce, and to be able to keep them and be, you know, pay people a good living wage that makes them want to keep doing it. So it’s a huge challenge, the work.
So in your position, do you have a philosophy that you follow or a vision for agriculture in the state? How do you sort of define what you do in your role?
Well, I mean, I’m trying to follow our mission. And honestly, I think it’s a pretty good mission. And I didn’t invent the mission. I inherited the mission. So, you know, we try to regulate fairly. I mean, there are times when we have to say “no” to farmers. We try not to, but, you know, we’re very active, say, during COVID. We tried to put in place procedures, regulations that would allow the opening of farmers’ markets. I mean, that was the question. I mean, 15 months ago there were a lot of questions. And so we try to have a regulatory system that is linked to the mission. Yes, sometimes we have to tell people, you can do it, or you can’t do it. But our goal is to keep our farmers as prosperous as possible.
Is there something people don’t know about farming in Massachusetts that you wish they knew?
Well, you know, obviously we’re not one of the big square states in the Midwest. We don’t pump, you know, hundreds of millions of tonnes of corn or soybeans. But we are very good at what we do here. We have very, very innovative farmers. So what we have an advantage, our big advantage is the consumer base. You know, about 6 million people live in Massachusetts. We are one of the top 10 direct farm-to-consumer sellers in the United States. So this is the farm stand. This is the farmers market. It is the mobile market. This is the CSA. This is where Massachusetts, many Massachusetts farmers have done so well. Now, obviously, these are not cranberries. It’s not milk. But a lot of our farmers survive by retailing and not wholesaling, or a lot of retailing and not wholesaling. So I don’t know how many people know that we’re one of the top states in the country for direct farm-to-consumer sales.
What’s on your radar, looking summer through fall for agriculture in Massachusetts? Are there any big milestones or deadlines to follow as the seasons continue to advance?
Well, I mean, you know, we react a lot to the seasons. I mean, it’s a quintessential seasonal activity. Farmers had a good year last year. I mean, it’s interesting how COVID has affected different businesses. You know, people have increased their desire for locally produced food for a variety of reasons. Maybe it was safer to buy. They just didn’t want to deal with a lot of people or who drove them there and then they found a happy space there. So part of it is to retain customers who were first introduced to local farming through COVID. And we’re seeing a lot of it this year. So things are good. You know, as I mentioned, for the most part agriculture has done well thanks to COVID, Massachusetts agriculture has done well thanks to COVID. And it’s so grateful that Commonwealth residents thought this was a good place to get food, and that’s what we want them to continue to do.