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Report says Harvard’s farms need economic viability to adapt to changing climate

A  five-months-long effort to create a climate action plan for Harvard ended last week with the release of a 64-page Agricultural Climate Action Plan. According to the consultant group who worked on it, the plan is the first in the state to focus specifically on agriculture.

The work, which was funded by a $70,000 state Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness (MVP) Action grant and matched by volunteer work and general funding from the town, resulted in a new website and other branding materials for the Agricultural Advisory Commission and offers a blueprint for continued action. However, leaders from stakeholder groups say that timing, budget restraints, and roadblocks posed by state laws resulted in an underwhelming outcome.

Grant work was a collaboration among Harvard’s Community Resilience Working Group, the Agricultural Advisory Commission, and two outside corporations that focus on community sustainability solutions: Kim Lundgren Associates Inc., and Dodson & Flinker.

The Community Resilience Working Group was formed last year to address environmental and sustainability issues at the municipal level and to create and follow through on work funded by MVP grants offered by the state.

Calls to action

The report offers 50 short-, medium-, and long-term action items that are divided into four focus categories: economic viability, resource efficiency and greenhouse gas reduction, nature-based resiliency and regenerative practices, and social cohesion and agricultural character. A few from each category are prioritized and fleshed out with a plan for implementation.

One recommendation is for Harvard to revise zoning laws to allow farms to capitalize on agritourism opportunities such as farm stays, which allow visitors to stay overnight on a farm, similar to a bed and breakfast. According to the report, agritourism is an increasingly lucrative business in Worcester County. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of farms offering agritourism doubled, while earnings from the activities nearly tripled. The county is a “hotspot” for agritourism, the report says, and Harvard’s location, coupled with its outdoor recreation amenities and diversity in farm offerings, gives it great potential to benefit from the practice.

Another recommendation is for Harvard to appoint a person or group to supplement the Agricultural Advisory Commission. Consultant Kari Hewitt described this role as similar to the Friends of the Harvard Public Library, and said the person or group could be responsible for developing and supporting community partnerships, especially with possible grant sources.

Tool-share programs that would save farmers purchasing costs and tax dollars, a community kitchen that would offer small-scale farmers a Board of Health-approved area to prepare baked goods for sale, increased use of solar panels, updated stormwater infrastructure, and the creation of various community forums and educational outlets are also prioritized.

Most immediate concern: Economic viability

A key finding of the report is that, while climate change effects such as rising temperatures, changes in precipitation patterns, and extreme storms may be grim, existing economic pressures are the most immediate concern for Harvard’s agricultural community. It explains that these economic hardships only worsen the impacts of climate change, and avers, “Any plans to address Harvard’s resilience in the face of climate change must address these more chronic financial stressors while placing farmers in a financial position to be able to invest further in protecting their farms from future impacts.”

As a result of this finding, the greatest disappointment for both Kerri Green, chair of the Agricultural Commission and co-owner of Westward Orchards, and Chris Ryan, chair of the resilience group, was learning that the town is unable to amend property tax laws to reduce the economic burden on farms.

An expensive place to farm

According to Green, Massachusetts is one of the most expensive places in the country to operate a farm, and property taxes—which, according to the report, increased by 25% between 2012 and 2017 for farms in Worcester County—are a big reason for that. “If I were to tell you how much we pay in property taxes … a year, you’d probably fall over,” she said, referring to Westward Orchards.

However, learning that the power to amend property tax laws lies upstream means that they can put energy into influencing policy at the state level. “We have to get creative and figure out how we can do it and make as much noise as we can so that it can really be looked at by the people [who] can actually do something about it,” said Green.

Receiving the grant in January, shortly before the coronavirus pandemic hit, had both a positive and a negative impact on the project. On one hand, the delay pushed the process back to coincide with the growing season, when farmers are busiest. Green felt that this kept stakeholders from participating to the degree she had hoped.

The pandemic did give the town more time to work with the grant, though. Ryan said he was taken aback by the original three-month time frame they were given to complete the project. “It seemed to be sort of a strange little twist of awarding a grant but only allowing your awardee to have three months to complete it.”

Once the pandemic hit, the town was allowed to extend the project past the end of the fiscal year, which provided an additional two months to plan and facilitate.

Despite the extra time, neither Green nor Ryan was especially impressed by the final draft of the report. The 64-page document provides a framework for community development with the goal of putting Harvard’s agricultural community on more stable economic footing in anticipation of the effects of climate change.

Many of the action items proposed in the report are expensive and would require town funding and volunteer work that Green and Ryan aren’t confident are available.

“A plan is only as good as the amount of money that can be garnered to work on the goal[s] and the partners … or participants that are designated to be a part of that action item ... if you don’t have [those] things then it is going to wither,” explained Ryan.

Green agreed, saying that the document is more of a consultant’s report than a reflection of stakeholder engagement. “It’s something that can only really be built off of at this point. … It’s totally got some great things in there, and I’m hoping that we do good things with it.” She added that the Agricultural Commission will be reviewing it at its next meeting and encouraged anyone with comments to attend.

New website guides visitors to Harvard farms, big and small

What Green is most excited about are the branding items that came out of the grant. These include a logo for Harvard’s agricultural community, a brochure, and a website called Harvard Grown.

The website is live and can be accessed at harvardgrown.org. It has a map to guide visitors to farms throughout the community and provides descriptions of the products and experiences available at each. “It’s going to be a huge asset to the farms in town to be able to have another outlet that’s going to bring people out,” Green said. Her plan is to print and distribute the brochures at the beginning of next year’s growing season and, until then, to focus on advertising and attracting traffic to the website.

Regardless of the role the grant project plays, the goal for Green and Ryan moving forward is to maintain Harvard’s ambience as a rural agricultural community. Supporting farms of all sizes is at the heart of that mission. Green said that action to create economic stability for farmers needs to start now, while it can still make a difference. “You can have a point where it’s too late to do anything,” she warned.

The first step, she said, is making and keeping farming accessible to those who want to pursue it. “We say it all the time at our farm: We choose to do this … getting up every day and every season and doing what we do, it’s a choice and we choose it because we love it. It’s very much who we are. It’s in our blood. It’s in our family’s legacy—four generations—but it gets harder and harder. … It’s not what it used to be.”

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