WESTHAMPTON — As farmers face increasing challenges due to climate change, labor shortages and rising costs, U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern embarked on his 13th annual districtwide farm tour this week to hear directly from local farmers.
His first stop of the two-day journey began Tuesday morning at Westhampton’s Mayval Farm Creamery, a nearly 250-year-old family farm that produces and sells pasteurized milk, cheeses, beef, eggs and skyr, along with maple syrup.
With around 100 registered dairy cows, Mayval is one of only 120 remaining dairy farms in western Massachusetts, compared to more than 22,000 a century ago.
The decline in small dairy farms is a testament to the difficulties faced by the small dairy farm industry, as larger agricultural operations produce more dairy products at lower costs, and as plant-based options take the place of milk for many consumers.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to help our dairy farmers not just survive, but thrive,” said McGovern. “For food safety, for the local economy, for protecting the environment.”
This year, the federal government is expected to pass a new Farm Bill, a legislation package that has been revised and renewed once every five years since the 1930s, when it was first introduced as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
The Farm Bill provides support for a range of programs including crop insurance, healthy food access, SNAP, school lunch, farmer trainings and more. As senior member of the House Agriculture Committee, McGovern is a key figure in shaping the bill.
“It’s so incredible that our elected official representing us in D.C. has that kind of prowess and foresight,” said Philip Korman, executive director of the Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA), an organization represented at Tuesday’s tour along with other western Massachusetts farmers and advocates.
CISA — with the mission of strengthening local farms and engaging the community to build a resilient local food system — works with McGovern on planning for his annual farm tours, helping him visit farms that touch on relevant themes.
“Farms have the opportunity to meet with folks who work for different state and federal agencies, and be able to say, ‘here’s my challenge point. What can your government do with us and for us?’” Korman said.
This year’s farm tour schedule includes 11 farms across central and western Massachusetts. In addition to Mayval Farm, McGovern stopped at Flat Rock Farm in Chesterfield, along with Franklin County farms in Conway, Colrain, Leyden and Buckland. Wednesday’s tour is scheduled to include stops in several central Massachusetts communities.
At Mayval Farm Creamery, farm store manager Kate Parsons laid out key issues facing the farm and highlighted the farm’s recent successes.
“As much support as we can have to continue to have all our tools in the toolbox is important,” said Parsons.
She highlighted the Food Security Infrastructure Grant Program — a state program that aims to support a resilient and equitable local food system — as particularly beneficial to the farm.
Over the past two years, Mayval Farm Creamery has received over $100,000 in grant funding for equipment including an extra freezer to store meat, a new bottler, an ice builder, a delivery van and a power generator — all important equipment that has helped the farm expand production, according to Parsons.
“I think Massachusetts has great support and farms are really appreciative of that,” she said.
Among concerns expressed by Parsons was the production of ethanol, an industrial chemical used as an additive in gasoline, in pharmaceuticals like colognes and lotions, and also present in alcoholic beverages.
“Ethanol production increases the corn price and isn’t really sustainable… we should grow corn for feed and for human consumption, not ethanol,” said Parsons.
Kate Parsons’ father, Henry Parsons, who manages the dairy herd and beef cattle, brought up concerns around milk in school lunches and encouraged the congressman to support the “Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act,” introduced in the House in February.
Current USDA regulations require school lunch milk to be fat-free or low fat, and the bill would modify those restrictions so that students have the option of drinking whole milk.
“The dietary council seems to think that whole fat milk is unhealthy or it’s gonna make kids fat,” said Parsons. “I mean, you have kids turning down milk, but they don’t think twice about grabbing a bag from Fritos.”
“We have to figure out a way to enhance infrastructure in schools that don’t have refrigeration so they can cook more from scratch,” McGovern responded. “And then I think kids need to learn about the difference between whole milk and skim milk, and people can make choices.”
Another goal for this year’s farm tour is to hear from farmers about the historic rainfall and flooding that wiped out hundreds of acres of crops.
“We were fairly fortunate; we’re not down in the low-lying flooded areas,” said Kate Parsons, who said Mayval didn’t face the brunt of flooding, but added, “We’ve been fighting the rain for making hay and some equipment breakdowns.”
In terms of helping dairy farms specifically, McGovern said it is important to help farms diversify their production.
“One of the ways is to help them with equipment, help them with infrastructure, and help them with marketing to be able to get their product out to more people,” said McGovern.
At the event, Mayval served cups of the farm-made maple skyr, a type of fresh sour milk cheese that originated in Iceland. Skyr has a similar consistency as yogurt, with a more mild flavor.
“This is delicious. It’s unbelievable,” said McGovern as he ate a spoonful of skyr. “There’s something about having it produced locally.”
McGovern pointed to the skyr as an example of the farm’s diversification, something he said is important to keep small dairy farms successfully running.
“We live in New England. Our farms are small- or medium-sized farms,” said McGovern. “You have to pay close attention to everything that you produce here. These big mega-farms, they don’t have to. They have issues all the time, and they just kind of get through it.”