HEATH — Where does your food come from? And, if you grow more food than you can eat, where does it go?
The hill towns of Heath, Colrain and Charlemont have no full-service supermarkets, but they have farmers, growers and food processors. How to connect local food producers with local eaters has been one of the goals of a Community Food Assessment, led by the Heath Agricultural Commission with assistance from the Charlemont and Colrain agricultural commissions.
Last year, the three agricultural commissions took a survey of residents/consumers and of food producers, to find out where most people buy food and what keeps them from buying fresh foods grown closer to home. From growers and farmers, the agricultural commissioners wanted to know what stops them from producing and selling more food, especially in their own neighborhoods.
“For farmers, what other resources, if available, would enable you to scale up (production)?” asked Jessica Van Steensburg of the Heath Agricultural Commission. Van Steensburg is also executive director of Just Roots in Greenfield, a nonprofit group that promotes vegetable gardening and growing food on municipal land. “For instance, the backyard grower who’s raising chickens and has extra (eggs) to sell: What could allow for people to buy more local product?”
Van Steensburg said many respondents said they would buy more eggs, chicken, cheese, apples, milk, honey, cider, berries and vegetable from local growers if they could be purchased close to home and at affordable prices.
Food growers, she said, don’t necessarily have all the equipment needed to produce and sell all the food they could. For a grower to make and sell a food product — like jams, pickles or pesto — they would need a commercial kitchen, annually inspected, with serve-safe certified management.
“In Heath, there’s a plucker that small-scale farms can use,” said Van Steensburg. A “plucker” removes the feathers from a chicken or turkey, in preparation for the bird to be cooked. “People said, ‘If I could have access to a commercial kitchen …’ Well, there are three commercial kitchens in Heath,” she said.
“The next step is to create a resource guide that makes these connections,” Van Steensburg said.
The guide would be a directory that lists both local growers and resources for growers and food producers. Currently, the agricultural commissions are seeking growers who want to be in the resource guide. Those who do should send an email to:
Mary Chicoine, senior land use and natural resources planner at the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, which is providing technical assistance, hopes this project will inspire other small-town agricultural commissions to work together to better connect local townspeople with local growers. Chicoine said the District Local Technical Assistance program grant was really important, because this was an all-volunteer project.
“We had all these wonderful ideas, but we needed more information about food,” she said. “If you live in one of these small towns, how do you learn where these resources are?”
Besides putting out a resource guide, another idea in Heath is to hold a “meet and greet” at the Heath Community Hall, where people can meet the town’s farmers and growers in person.
With 152 survey responses from the three towns, 135 identified themselves as “consumers,” and 26 identified themselves as “producers,” although some people responded under both categories. Half the respondents were from Heath, 29 percent were from Charlemont and 17 percent were from Colrain. About 4 percent were from other towns.
In Heath, the average round trip for groceries is 42 miles, so running to the nearest supermarket in either Greenfield or Adams can add up over a year’s time.
If a Heath resident could skip just one trip a month — a dozen trips per year — he or she would save 504 miles, 14 hours and about 25 gallons of gasoline (about $60 per year when the gas is priced at $2.40 per gallon.)
For Charlemont residents, the average round trip to a supermarket is 36 miles and for Colrain, the round trip is 19 miles.
When asked what percentage of their food was bought at supermarkets, almost half (48 percent of 116 responding) said they bought at least 75 percent of their food from supermarkets, and 28 percent purchased at least half their food from supermarkets. Only 10 percent bought less than 25 percent of their food from supermarkets or stores.
Most (75 percent) said they would buy more apples, fruit, vegetables, berries, eggs, milk, chicken, cheese, honey and cider from local producers if they could. And when asked what factors would help them buy more local food, most said that having a nearby farmers market, with longer hours, would help. About 40 percent said having a new store nearby; 38 percent said coupons and price discounts; and 34 percent said having foods with a longer shelf life.
When asked why they don’t buy more local food, 46 percent said the prices are too high, 20 percent said local foods aren’t available where they shop. About 76 percent would use workshops on cooking, storing and preserving free foods if those workshops were available, if there were a garden-tool lending program, education on raising food on their own property, or having a community garden plot.
Chicoine said the idea that locally grown food costs more than supermarket produce is not necessarily true during the growing season. FRCOG did a study in which it found that local food sold during the growing season was comparable — or even lower priced — than supermarket fare.
Among the 14 responding food producers, 60 percent said the top barrier preventing them from making more food products were too many regulations; 50 percent said they need to upgrade or purchase equipment and 40 percent said they need a local shared processing facility.
They said their top barriers to selling more products were: expensive regulatory hurdles, including butchering and pasteurization rules (50 percent); too few businesses to sell to nearby (40 percent); many people can’t afford to buy local food (36 percent). About 29 percent of those responding said it’s too difficult to sell to schools and institutions, the market is saturated, and they didn’t have time to look for new markets for their products.
About one-third of the 23 responding growers only grow for themselves and their families, while almost half earn 10 percent or less of their income from food production.
Some steps that may be helpful in the future could be more plans for sharing agricultural equipment, leasing or re-using an old orchard in which the apples go unpicked, and connecting landowners to farmers, so that unused fields could be hayed.
Reach Diane Broncaccio at: email@example.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 277