Our Opinion: Berkshire farms have room to blossom

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Less-heralded than Berkshire County's venerable manufacturing legacy or its rapidly growing cultural tourism industry is its identity as a center for agriculture. Farms have been supporting and enriching the county's economy throughout its history and remain a viable presence, thanks to their ability to adapt with the times.

Massachusetts Agriculture Commissioner John Lebeaux, during a recent tour of local farms (Eagle, August 3), dropped a few salient facts: Berkshire County is home to the second-largest farms in Massachusetts and alone comprises 11.8 percent of the state's entire agricultural land.

That would be significant enough in itself, but even more important is that agriculture in the Berkshires has demonstrated the kind of elasticity that has contributed to its survival, and has a good chance of ensuring its stability well into the future. It is impossible, considering economics of scale and distribution, for local dairy farms to compete with the industrialized megafarms of the Midwest, so the Berkshire agricultural community has made a virtue out of its relatively modest size: the whole farm-to-table movement — currently enjoying a spot at the very apex of restaurant trendiness, not to mention popularity among health-conscious consumers — originated right here in the county in the 1980s.

According to Barbara Zheutlin, executive director of Berkshire Grown, an organization that supports local food and farms, Berkshire County is among the top three counties nationwide in selling directly from farm to consumer. It is easy to see that by doing an end-run around the middleman — the vast agribusiness food distributors — consumers obtain a fresher, tastier and more nutritious product while farmers keep more money in their pockets. Wisely, the state budgeted money — $30,000 to Berkshire County alone, in fact — to promote the purchase of locally-sourced food.

Just beginning to germinate is another crop that could inject millions into the state and local economies, that being the genus cannabis, whose cultivated species are known more commonly as marijuana and hemp. With the passing of Massachusetts' recreational marijuana referendum in 2016, the state is now in the process of determining how to regulate the growth of the plant. What has been primarily a basement industry now has the prospect of breaking out into the open, to the enormous benefit of local farmers.

Bureaucratic pitfalls lurk in the wings, however. A detail mentioned in passing by Commissioner Lebeaux has the potential for creating unnecessary confusion: hemp and marijuana are genetically the same plant, and cultivation of industrial hemp — used for rope, cloth and other purposes — will be regulated by the agriculture department. Marijuana, containing more THC — the chemical that delivers the "high" — will lie under the purview of the nascent Cannabis Control Commission. Imagine being a Berkshire farmer wanting to devote some of his acreage to growing both strains, side by side — or possibly experiment in cross-breeding.

We urge state government officials to ensure that this promising industry is not tangled in a web of conflicting regulations.


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