Bad times for the good earth

By D.C. DENISON  |  August 11, 2009

Are programs like these, which envision an increase of farming in Massachusetts, more nostalgic then realistic? Don't even suggest the idea to Frederic Winthrop Jr., who was appointed the Commissioner of Food and Agriculture by Michael Dukakis in 1975. Winthrop, who looks like a cross between Clark Kent and a WGBH executive, has the steady gaze and earnest manner of a man with a mission. No wonder: he spends most of his time trying to convince state and federal officials that Massachusetts farming is something that should be taken seriously. "Look," he says. "We're not Iowa or Nebraska. When people think of Massachusetts, they don't think of farming. But the preservation of farm land and agricultural self-sufficiency are both very important for everyone in the state. Once that land is gone, it's gone. In the future, if transportation costs continue to rise and the population increases, that could mean exorbitant prices or even food shortages for Massachusetts."

Agricultural self-sufficiency for Massachusetts is an oft-mentioned concept in the state's offices; "Massachusetts grown. . .and fresher!" is emblazoned on the department's logo. Yet while Winthrop concedes that even near self-sufficiency can never be fully realized, he feels it is the way to go. "People often bring up the case of Switzerland," he says, "which is 85 percent self-sufficient, and ask me why we can't do it in Massachusetts. Well, for one thing, we're not a country: we can't enforce food-import quotas; we can't boycott Iowa beef. But there are products that we could be supplying more of: milk, poultry, eggs, non-citrus fruits, and potatoes for example. And that's the direction that we're going in."

Down the hall, in the Division of Markets office, John J. Fitzgerald and Greg Watson have been working to help local groups set up farmers' markets in cities across Massachusetts, often in the face of considerable red tape. "There's the Chamber of Commerce to deal with, traffic problems to consider, health ordinances," Watson says. "Brookline was a case in point. It was over a year before we sorted out the problems with local officials and town merchants who were afraid of unfair competition."

The idea behind farmer's markets is attractive: it provides an outlet for the small farmer who cannot make money in the wholesale markets, and at the same time it brings fresh fruit and vegetables into the city. In addition, it sets up a direct link between farmers and consumers that shows how both groups can work in a way that's mutually beneficial.

In New York City, a similar farmers' market program, called the Greenmarket, was a huge success. In Massachusetts, such an idea is moving a little more slowly; after three years of work, there are now over 40 farmers' markets in the state. The Brookline market opened July 19. Watson is hopeful. "There has been a problem in that many farmers just don't want to go into the cities," he says. "But we're hoping that the markets eventually get big enough so that it's worth everyone's while: farmers and customers. Actually we've already reached that point at some markets; others are just going to take more time."

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