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A big hand to microfarming

Change in state law boosts local food production efforts

Area residents shop for locally grown produce at a Southbridge Farmers Market on the Town Common. Gus Steeves. (click for larger version)
September 01, 2010
People with green thumbs now need less land to try their hand at farming.

After a previous attempt to do so died in committee, the Legislature approved protecting farms of at least two acres and $1,000 in annual production from local zoning requirements as an amendment to the recently-passed economic development bill. For years, the requirement has been either five acres in any zone or any acreage in agricultural zones, and neither had a sales quota.

To Charlton Selectman Kathleen Walker, who is toying with the idea of planting her property in corn next year and currently grows a few other things, including potatoes, the idea's a necessary one to encourage a healthier food supply.

"I got involved this year for the first time with a farmer's market in Charlton," she said, noting it prompted her to "take on a personal study" of food-related issues that "leads me naturally in the direction of growing some of my own food."

Specifically, Walker argued, the fact a majority of our food today needs to be trucked in from elsewhere and thus needs preservatives, pesticides and other chemicals has led to a less nutritious food supply. Even though local farms may not be strictly organic, the fact they don't have to transport their produce very far makes them "more organic" than the big corporate agribusinesses, she said.

"What I'm starting to understand is the health benefit of buying locally," she added. "The quality [of food] has deteriorated from what our grandparents ate."

The new law amends Mass. General Laws Chapter 40A, Section 3, by allowing two-acre uses in non-agricultural zones "if the sale of products produced from the agriculture, aquaculture, silviculture, horticulture, floriculture or viticulture use on the parcel annually generates at least $1,000 per acre based on gross sales dollars." By adding that phrasing, such miniature farms are now protected under the existing statement that "No zoning ordinance or by-law shall regulate or restrict the use of materials, or methods of construction of structures regulated by the state building code, nor shall any such ordinance or by-law prohibit, unreasonably regulate, or require a special permit" for agricultural uses.

Under MGL Chapter 128, Section 1A, which defines agriculture, the amendment opens such parcels to various crops, horses, poultry, swine, bees and "other domesticated animals used for food purposes," fur production and forestry. The new mini-farms are still not eligible for conservation restrictions and the tax breaks that come with them under Chapter 61A, however, since they're too small.

See Friday's Southbridge Evening News for complete coverage of community news.

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