It’s called the Dairy Farm Preservation Act, but legislation signed into law last week by Gov. Deval Patrick will be a boost for all kinds of small farmers. The law will make available more grant money and funds, will create a special board to promote dairy farming in the commonwealth and will increase to 10 miles the distance farmers can drive their unregistered tractors and farm equipment.
“In a nutshell it really represents a really monumental piece of legislation,” said Department of Agricultural Resources assistant commissioner Scott J. Soares yesterday. “It provides a variety of things for dairy farmers and for agriculture broadly.”
Signed by the governor on Thursday, the law has eight parts, which include:
• A low-interest loan program for farmers.
• Income tax credits to dairy farmers during months when milk prices fall below production costs.
• More funding for farmers with land held in agricultural preservation restriction,
• The establishment of a dairy promotion board.
• Exempting farm animals and farm equipment used for agricultural purposes from personal property taxes.
• A provision allowing farmers to drive their unregistered farm vehicles ten miles (previously the limit was two miles).
• An allowance for coupons for fluid milk in the state.
• The establishment of a commission to study legal barriers to adopting new farm technology.
“This is very gratifying. I didn’t know they knew we were out here,” said Jim Athearn, who owns Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown. Mr. Athearn also sits on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and is a vice president of the Agricultural Society. “This could have an effect on me and it could have an effect on a rising farmer on the Vineyard who may now have more tools to use to get started.”
The law grew out of a report written after high costs and low milk prices drove Governor Patrick to declare a state of emergency for Massachusetts dairy farmers in 2007. It seeks to protect a state industry which has declined more than 77 per cent in the past 25 years. There are currently 183 licensed dairy farms in Massachusetts; in 1950, there were 6,760 dairy farms. There is one licensed dairy farm in Dukes County: Allen Healy’s Mermaid Farm in Chilmark.
Vineyard farmers can take advantage of the new law. Mr. Athearn regularly applies for grants to help offset the costs of running his farm. And with some of the land he farms protected under agricultural preservation restrictions, until last week he was prohibited from applying for state farm viability funding. “I have looked under the farm viability funds for grants before, but was never able to because my land is in permanent preservation,” Mr. Athearn said. “[Now] I may apply for the funding.”
Mr. Soares said: “This gives us a chance not just to preserve the land base, but also to preserve the agricultural business which needs to occur to keep these working land bases working.”
Island farmers could also get a boost from the creation of new four-year low-interest loans of up to $500,000. “The two most helpful things to me when I was getting started were the Farmers Home Administration’s low interest loans and the New England Vegetable Growers seminars,” Mr. Athearn said. “Things like that can be very helpful to someone trying to pull themselves up.”
William J. Gillmeister, chief economist for the state Department of Agricultural Resources, agreed. “That is a significant benefit to all farms. Oftentimes, farmers need to update their equipment. They may need to adopt new technologies and they may need some funds to do that. There are some granting programs already established, some incentives for the adoption of technologies, but this will provide even further resources for farms to take advantage,” he said.
The bulk of the bill, which is aimed at dairy farmers, will have little impact for Mr. Healy who milks four cows and sells 25 half-gallon bottles of raw milk a day in the summertime. “The only thing that affects me is the farm vehicle thing,” he said. “The rest is geared towards farmers who sell fluid milk to Hood or Garelick.”
But he said the vehicle provision will allow him to drive his truck to land he owns four miles away from his North Road farm.
As in the rest of Massachusetts, the number of dairy farms on the Vineyard has declined dramatically over the years. The Martha’s Vineyard Cooperative Dairy, an organization begun in 1946 by W.W. Pinney, then owner of Sweetened Water Farm, originally boasted 30 members, but rising costs led to dwindling numbers and the cooperative went out of business in 1968. In 1980, Stephen Potter began Seaside Dairy at Katama Farm in Edgartown. Mr. Potter’s milk provided 70 per cent of the Vineyard’s milk stock in the 1980s and he made cheddar cheese. In 1986, unable to overcome mounting financial debt, the dairy closed. Today, many Island farmers keep cows and goats. Some make cheese, milk and yogurt for use at home, but only Mr. Healy is certified as a dairy farmer, which allows him to sell raw milk from his farm.
Elsewhere in Massachusetts, dairy farmers produce almost two million pounds of milk — about 232,000 gallons — each year. Milk production costs are high while prices are low. “The cost of production has continued to increase, which is not unique in the dairy industry,” Mr. Soares said. “The costs of fuel, feed and labor have continued to increase. These programs will allow the industry to react to these kinds of costs.” The average farm price for a gallon of milk in 2006 was $1.16, down from $1.33 the year before. That small drop amounted to at least $44,270 in reduced income for Massachusetts dairy farmers, according to the Massachusetts Association of Dairy Farmers. The average price of milk is back up to $1.98 this year, but production costs add up to approximately $1.85 per gallon.
Mr. Gillmeister also advised patience. “It is going to take a little bit of time to get these programs up and running,” he said. The first piece to take effect will be the milk couponing program, which the department has 180 days to enact.
“Will it be easier to be a farmer in Massachusetts? I think so,” Mr. Gillmeister said. “The name is the Dairy Farm Preservation Act, but as you can hear, it does not just protect dairy farms, but all farms.”
The department of agriculture is now accepting proposals for its 2009 innovation center grants. Proposals are due by August 29. Guidelines are available online at mass.gov/agr/ag_innovation_center_rfr_09.pdf.
This column is meant to reflect all aspects of agricultural activity and farm life on the Vineyard. To reach Julia Rappaport, please call 508-627-4311, extension 120, or e-mail her at email@example.com.