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Back to the farm

Agriculture is bright light in dark economic times

Ashlyn Seymour, Stephanie Seymour, Ariana Maffeo, Sharyn Seymour, and Rachel Maffeo pick blueberries at Parlee Farm, Tyngsborough. Ashlyn Seymour, Stephanie Seymour, Ariana Maffeo, Sharyn Seymour, and Rachel Maffeo pick blueberries at Parlee Farm, Tyngsborough. (Photos By Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By Katheleen Conti
Globe Staff / August 6, 2009

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As layoffs, furloughs, and staycations increase in the recession, the local farming industry is enjoying a rise in sales and popularity.

While a cold and rainy June delayed some crops, such as corn, and shortened strawberry season, more than 1,200 farms in Essex and Middlesex counties continue to thrive, thanks in part to government programs and growing demand for farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture programs, said Scott Soares, commissioner of the state’s Department of Agricultural Resources.

“I don’t think the recession has had a negative impact,’’ Soares said. “We think agriculture is one of the bright lights in the current economy.’’

According to the 2007 US Department of Agriculture census, the latest available, the number of farms in Essex and Middlesex counties grew by 252 from 2002 through 2007, a 26 percent increase. Statewide, the USDA report said the number of farms grew 27 percent, from 6,075 in 2002 to 7,691 in 2007. Direct sales from farms statewide jumped to $42 million from $31 million in the same period.

“It’s an agricultural renaissance in that we’re seeing many of the people return to the simpler, more local activities that we did 100 years ago before the quote-unquote convenience of fast food,’’ Soares said. “There’s a reawakening.’’

For Laurie Sanroma of Nashua, there is no comparison between the blueberries she was picking on a recent Thursday morning at Parlee Farms in Tyngsborough and those available in the supermarket.

“They taste different, way better,’’ Sanroma said as her young daughter watched her pick the fruit. “I love picking our own fruit. It’s cheaper and healthier and that’s very important because she eats more healthy food that way.’’

Sanroma is among the many returning customers at Parlee Farms, which has seen a steady growth in visitors and sales in the past 20 years, said Ellen Parlee, who owns and operates the approximately 100-acre farm along with her husband, Mark. Parlee Farms does not wholesale or participate in CSAs or farmers’ markets - it is a retail farm that attracts the pick-your-own crowd, as well as those who enjoy the bakery, ice cream window, and animals available for petting.

“We’re fortunate to be the beneficiary of the fact that people want an inexpensive outing with their families, and they can get a great product to take home to their family,’’ Parlee said. “The rain has been our biggest issue this year, but our customer volume is good, if not better, than it has been in the past. . . . The good thing is that the blueberries and the apples, two of our biggest crops, like rain. Our berries are huge, the most beautiful crops we’ve ever seen.’’

June’s rain and cold were not good for all crops, ruining the already short strawberry season for many farmers and for some tomato and potato growers because of a sudden infestation of the mold known as late blight.

Parlee does not grow tomatoes or potatoes, but she was among several farmers in the area to receive a blight warning from the University of Massachusetts Extension Program last month.

Glenn Cook, owner of Cider Hill Farm in Amesbury, said his tomatoes have not been affected because they are grown in plastic tunnels away from the rain and wind-blown blight spores.

“It doesn’t rain in our tunnels, so my tomatoes are great,’’ Cook said. “I have issues with my potatoes - they’re kind of falling apart. We’re digging the potatoes out now but they’re not growing anymore.’’

For farmers who cannot afford to convert their land into retail operations, or who cannot keep up with the demands of wholesaling, CSAs and farmers’ markets provide an outlet to reach consumers, Soares said. In the past two years, the number of farmers’ markets statewide exceeded official expectations, increasing by 30 to a total of 195, Soares said. Similarly, he said, there’s been increased interest in CSAs, programs that allow consumers to sign up for weekly supplies of produce throughout the growing season.

The added interest in local agriculture is defying not just the down economy, but also the fact that it is more expensive to farm in New England than anywhere else in the country. The average value of farmland across the country is about $2,000 per acre, compared to $12,200 in Massachusetts because of the pressure to develop, Soares said. Still, more people are seeking to buy farmland here thanks to federal programs such as the Agricultural Preservation Restriction, which allows for discounted purchases in exchange for an agreement to put the land under permanent protection as open space, Soares said.

Soares also credits other government programs with increasing access and demand for locally grown foods, such as those allowing the use of food stamps at farmers’ markets to help seniors and low-income residents.

In some communities, such as Chelmsford, officials are forming commissions focused on farmland preservation and economic development. Chelmsford Town Meeting recently approved an agricultural commission, said Town Manager Paul Cohen.

“We only have a few working farms left. We have one apple orchard, a farm stand in town, some strawberry growth - there’s limited remaining agricultural activity in town,’’ Cohen said. “It’s an effort to preserve that activity in town and our heritage.’’

In Ipswich, the Raymond family reached an agreement this week with the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit dedicated to land conservation, that would conserve the nearly 250 acres that make up Maplecroft Farm. The trust will have until February to raise $5.1 million to purchase various conservation restrictions that would permanently protect the land from development.

The buy-local movement is also helping some farms weather the recession, said Cook of Cider Hill Farm. Cook not only runs a retail operation at the 145-acre farm, but is also a member of several CSAs and participates in farmers’ markets in Saugus, Gloucester, and Marblehead.

“There are interesting contrasting forces for sure with the timing of the buy-local movement and with the economy, with people feeling tighter,’’ Cook said. “Our prices are very competitive with the supermarkets. . . . They’re coming for the experience, for the fresh product and being careful how they spend their money.

“I’m not sure we’re recession-proof,’’ Cook added. “We’ll be affected because it exists, but even if it gets worse, people will spend their last dollar on food. We grow food, that’s the bottom line.’’

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com.

Take your pick

What is available at five local farms this week:

PARLEE FARMS, Tyngsborough:

Pick your own: blueberries and cut flowers. Farm stand: corn, peaches, strawberries, cut flowers, and blueberries.

CIDER HILL FARM, Amesbury:

Pick your own: raspberries, blueberries, peaches. Farm stand: lettuce, zucchini, summer squash, pickles cucumbers, potatoes, blueberries, raspberries, peaches, beats, carrots, mesclun, tomatoes, and strawberries.

DRAGONFLY FARMS, Pepperell:

Farm stand: tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, carrots, green beans, corn.

APPLETON FARMS, Ipswich:

For CSA members: lettuce, beats, carrots, onions, arugula, cabbage, summer squash, green beans, flowers, sunflowers, basil, herbs, red potatoes, and broccoli.

FARMER DAVE’S DUMARESQ FARM,

Dracut: Brox Farm stand: scallions, onions, garlic, yellow beans, green beans, lettuce, beats, radishes, turnips, cucumbers, summer squash, zucchini, kusa (a Lebanese squash), tomatoes, corn, blueberries, herbs.

SOURCE: Individual farms