Pioneer Valley farmers thrive through rough economic times

By Maggie Freleng

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.

Email This Story

Courtesy the Barstow Family

Up since 4 a.m., Steven Barstow climbs down from his tractor to take a break from daily duties on his beautiful hilltop farm. He relaxes and reflects on his years as a farmer at a table inside his dairy store café overlooking his acres of land which is populated by dairy cows and surrounds the Connecticut River.

Barstow’s Longview Farm has been a family-run dairy farm since the 1800s. A sixth generation owner, Barstow has been running the Barstow family farm since 1976 in partnership with his brother Dave. The farm is located in Hadley on a hamlet called “Hockanum,” a designated National Historic District.

Since taking over the farm from his father, Steven Barstow’s dairy business has seen a lot of ups and downs. Barstow explained that last year was particularly hard.

“I’m not sure if it had to do with the economy or the price of milk, but last year exports slowed way down,” said Barstow. “2009 was the worst year we have ever had.”

Having to take out numerous loans, the Barstow family business is in serious debt.

“When times are down like this we just keep borrowing and borrowing money,” said Barstow who explained that without the Mass. Dairy Farmer Tax Credit Program, which allows a dairy farmer who holds a Certificate of Registration to receive a refundable income tax credit based on the amount of milk produced and sold, they would be “a lot worse off.”

However, despite the recent economic slump, farmers in the Pioneer Valley, such as the Barstows, are doing better than most, and are even optimistic. Farmers in the Valley also consider themselves fortunate to live in a community where buying local is of paramount importance.

Devon Whitney-Deal of Community Involvement in Sustainable Agriculture (CISA), a group dedicated to strengthen the connections between farms and the community, is very optimistic about the Pioneer Valley consumer’s desire for local produce, even if many people are in a tight financial situation.

“I really do feel that there is a segment of the population where prices don’t really matter as much,” said Whitney-Deal. “People want to support local so much that having a price be a little more expensive is worth it if it means they know where and who the food is coming from.”

Philip Korman, also of CISA, confirms that while prices may be a bit higher, the optimism of farmers asking for higher prices indicates that they can still sell the product at a higher cost.

“It is interesting, because if local farmers have nowhere to sell their product the prices would probably not be increasing,” said Korman.

Like Whitney-Deal and Korman, the Barstows are hopeful about their future in the Valley. In 2008, they were able to open up their dairy store and bakery on their Hockanum property hoping bring in more revenue, and support local farming efforts by selling only local goods, including their own dairy products.

“Hopefully when the store takes off it will help us in our downtime,” said Barstow. “The ‘buy local’ thing is really catching on. A lot of people care about local products, so hopefully that will keep going.”

Korman points out that there are four signs that this movement is staying strong. The first sign is that farmers are asking to increase prices of product. The second being local markets such as River Valley Market, in Northampton, growing into a supermarket by selling only local products. Korman says that by next year they will see about $2 million in revenue.

The third and fourth indicators that the ”buy local” movement growing is the increase in farmer’s markets as well as the development and increase in winter markets.

Korman states that five years ago there were no winter markets, but since last December in Springfield this is has started to change. This year there will be two farmer’s markets in Amherst, at least one in Northampton, and one in Franklin County.

Last year, the January winter market in Northampton attracted 2000 visitors, a major and extremely positive turn out for farmers.

In 2009, the USDA released their 2007 Census of Agriculture. The data for Massachusetts reveals and confirms the progress Korman and Whitney-Deal have mentioned local farmers in the Pioneer Valley are making.

Massachusetts farm sales increased by 27 percent from 2002-2007, as well as the number of farms increased by the same percentage. The census also lists Massachusetts as ranking second in the nation for average per farm sales of agricultural products directly to consumers.

Although there is no statistical data from 2007-2010, Korman used his four signs as evidence that these numbers are still increasing.

“Overall from my perspective, local is really something that is top of mind in the community,” said Whitney-Deal. “People are really showing their support by continuing to buy local. “So over all, farmers are doing OK, some better than others obviously, but all in all I’d have to say that it is not getting worse as the economy is getting worse.”

Maggie Freleng can be reached at [email protected]