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Western Massachusetts farms contend with drought, climate change, staffing shortages

Western Massachusetts farmers said this year's drought has challenged their resilience, just like last year's drenching rains did.

“People are working incredibly hard, trying to earn a living, to make it profitable so that they can continue on to the next year,” said U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, speaking to a group of farmers, supporters, and local and state officials at Brookfield Farm in Amherst this week.

McGovern was on his annual tour of farms around western Massachusetts to learn how they’re faring and what they need from the government.

Although each farm has their particular challenges, he said there was a common refrain:

“Climate change, climate change, climate change, over and over and over again, everywhere we go, no matter what the farm is,” McGovern said.

Brookfield Farm co-manager Kerry Taylor had no trouble listing this year's difficulties, starting with the expense and time involved in irrigation during a year with little rain, and crops that seem to need constant watering.

“When you get this dry, it feels like you put water down and then it's instantly gone,” she said. That has required a rethinking of crop placement and re-using some fields twice in a season, which can be tough on the soil.

Like many businesses, Taylor said, the farm has also contended with staffing shortages.

“We just all work ten times harder or things don't get done,” she said “We just spend a lot of time harvesting and then we just don't get to the weeding or other farm tasks.”

At the same time, she says fewer community members bought seasonal farm shares compared to last year, when the pandemic boosted interest in cooking fresh food.

“During (the early days of) COVID, no one could keep up with local produce sales or meat producers. Like it was off the charts,” Taylor said. “When people get anxious, they go back to their local markets.”

This year, she said, more people seem to have gotten tired of cooking and instead are going out more to restaurants.

When McGovern asked how he and his colleagues in government can help small farms, Taylor said she'd like to see more campaigns marketing local produce. She’d also like financial and technical help dealing with climate change, from infrastructure grants to supporting electric farm vehicles.

“I guess if there's any good news here,” McGovern said, “it’s that Congress just passed this bill to put forward the biggest investment to combat climate change ever. It's not perfect, but it's a movement in the right direction.”

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.