For early settlers, the Pioneer Valley’s fertile farmland was a major draw. Even as other industries sprang up and prospered in the region—manufacturing; later, healthcare and higher education—the Valley’s farmers and their signature products, like corn and asparagus, tobacco and dairy, remained a vital part of the local economy.
But by the early 1990s, farmers here, as in many parts of the country, were feeling vulnerable. As development ate up more and more farmland, “people felt that agriculture in the Valley was really threatened,” Margaret Christie, a veteran of the local farming scene, recalled recently. “There was a fear agriculture would become marginalized” and lose its position as an important segment of the Valley’s economy, she said.
So a group of interested parties—farmers, nonprofit organizations, educators, businesses—began holding brown-bag lunches to talk about what could be done to address that fear. The group called itself the Pioneer Valley Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture and, bolstered by a $1 million grant from the Kellogg Foundation, began working on a project whose name was also its solution: Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture.
This year, CISA celebrates its 20th anniversary. And while the Valley’s farmers still face plenty of challenges—from development that continues to gobble up open space, to competition from large-scale agribusiness, to increasingly intense and unpredictable weather—they do so with CISA as an invaluable ally in their corner. Over the past two decades, the organization has grown in size and scope. But it’s best known for its ubiquitous “Be a Local Hero” campaign, with its simple but powerful message about the importance of supporting local agriculture. “You can make a difference,” as Phil Korman, CISA’s executive director, put it. “You can be a hero doing this. You can change the world in a positive way.”
It’s a message that’s become part of the Valley’s cultural fabric, providing a language and structural foundation for the region’s larger commitment to all things local.
CISA is the oldest extant, if not the oldest, organization of its kind in the country. (A similar group in Santa Monica, Calif., is believed to have come first but is no longer around.) CISA incorporated as a non-profit in 1999. Today, it’s based in South Deerfield, with a staff of about a dozen and a board of directors culled from the region’s farming and business communities, colleges and conservation groups.
Today, CISA offers a broad range of services. It provides technical support to help farmers expand and diversify their businesses; connects farms with local hospitals, schools and other markets; and works to expand the local food system infrastructure. And it adds new programs as needs require and circumstances allow; in 2011, in response to the farm damage wrought by Hurricane Irene, CISA created a revolving-loan fund that provides farmers hurt by weather disasters with no-interest loans.
At the heart of CISA is the wildly successful “Local Hero” campaign, a marketing and education effort that reminds—and reminds, and then reminds some more—the public of the importance of spending their money on local farm products. Farmers markets and farm stands, grocery stores and gift shops, restaurants and cafés around the Valley display the familiar “Local Hero,” signaling to shoppers the many opportunities to support local growers and producers.
And it’s working: according to a survey conducted by CISA, four out of five residents of Franklin and Hampshire counties recognize the “Local Hero” logo. (In Hampden County, where CISA is working to expand its reach, the figure was 55 percent.) And a strong majority of farmers who participate in the program told CISA they’d seen their sales grow and were happy with the program.
From the start, CISA found that people already knew that buying locally was important, said Christie, who was CISA’s executive director when the Local Hero program was launched and is now its special projects director. “People don’t need to be educated so much as reminded how important it is,” she said.
CISA offers both that reminder and the support farmers need to get their products before potential customers. Those opportunities have grown dramatically in recent years; according to CISA’s 2012 annual report, there are now 42 farmers markets in the three Valley counties, including five winter markets, and 49 farms that sell a total of 10,000 harvest shares through the Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, model.
And time has shown that Valley consumers are not fair-weather local heroes. When Korman joined CISA in 2008, at the height of the recession, he worried that people might consider buying local “a nice thing to do in good times” but not something they could sustain during an economic downturn, he said. Instead, he was happily surprised to see that consumers were even more committed to supporting their local economy during a rough period.
“Home is important to people, especially when the times gets toughest,” Korman said.
CISA’s 20th anniversary year has included a mix of celebrating its successes—this spring, the state Legislature passed a resolution honoring the group and its work—and planning for its future.
As the buy-local movement has taken root around the nation, new policies and programs have sprouted at all levels of government, Korman noted. Many towns now have agricultural commissions, which ensure that farming interests have a voice in important community issues. On the state level, programs have been established to get more local foods into schools and to seniors, while the Mass. Food Policy Council was formed in 2010 to support the production and sale of Massachusetts products, among other goals. (Korman is a member of the council’s advisory committee.) Increasingly, he and Christie pointed out, public discourse and policy focus on the ways local agriculture can address problems such as hunger, obesity and climate change.
CISA, meanwhile, has set an ambitious goal for its 40th anniversary: to double the amount of local food purchased in the Valley, to 25 percent, by 2033. To kick things off, CISA this year created a “Local Hero Challenge” that calls on participants to show their love of local in various ways: making their own cheese, bringing a friend to their favorite farmers’ market, preserving some local bounty for the winter.
Beyond that, Korman and Christie said, CISA will continue to work on ways to help build the local food system: supporting new farmers so that someday they can be old farmers; helping develop processing and distribution options for local livestock farmers; supporting land conservation efforts; getting local products in more and more venues; supporting growers who want to expand to wholesale operations. CISA is also working to increase its presence in Hampden County, by working with groups in Springfield and other communities that are already working on community gardens, nutrition programs and other efforts, Christie said.
One thing CISA won’t do, Christie said, is take a position on the contentious issue of genetically modified organisms in agriculture. For one thing, that’s a production issue, which is outside CISA’s purview, she said. Similarly, when the group was first established, there was discussion about whether it should take a position on organic farming. Ultimately, members decided to keep the group open to a wide range of farmers.
“We think it’s great all kinds of farmers come together,” Christie said. And, she added, the group’s emphasis on local buying makes it easier for consumers to talk directly to farmers about the methods they use—“and you can bring some pressure to bear if that’s important to you.”
CISA, meanwhile, remains “a big tent focused on a single, strong message: buy local.”•
Voices of CISA:
Belle Rita Novak
Belle Rita Novak has been the organizer and manager of the Springfield/Farmers’ Market at Forest Park, located near the Cyr Arena, for 16 years, Though the market operates in Western Massachusetts’ largest urban area, it doesn’t fit the stereotype of an inner city farmers’ market, says Novak, though it “probably gets more racial diversity than they will have in Ashfield.”
“We get people from the inner city,” she explains, “but while I do understand that transportation is often difficult for people who don’t live near a supermarket, we have a lot of grocery stores in the city of Springfield. So while they don’t have the bigger grocery stores in the middle of the city, I don’t think it’s quite the food desert that it is in some cities.”
Novak also resists the stereotyping that may attach to an urban farmers’ market’s customers: “We have some people who come, and can and do spend as much as they want, and then there are others who are on a very limited budget,” she explains. “When you think of people of modest means, you have to remember that not everybody is uneducated about the value of shopping for local food. You can’t equate low income with ignorance about nutrition.
“We’ve been using the SNAP cards since 2008, and we’ve been doing very well with it. People are even using these SNAP cards for the pricier items like grass-fed beef. My sense is that some people are willing to have that kind of stuff less frequently, but spend more money for it. People who are on SNAP because they’ve lost work know how to cook. They know how to stretch food.”
The Springfield market draws vendors from as far north as Sunderland and as far south as the border towns of Connecticut, giving people in Hampden County a cornucopia of fresh, regionally grown food. “Corn and tomatoes and all the fruits are big sellers,” Novak says. “Really, everything seems to sell well. We also have a couple of dairies that come, and one sells goat products and one sells cow products. The dairies do great. The milk is bottled in glass and it stays fresh for so long. They don’t mix their milk with anybody else’s milk. Now we have fish. It comes from Cape Cod. Talk about pricey—but it’s sustainable.”
To ensure that no one has to curtail purchases at the market for lack of cash, the Springfield market offers tokens worth $2.50 that customers can buy with credit, debit or EBT cards.” No one ever runs out of money at our market,” Novak says. “Last year we sold $24,000 worth of tokens at our summer and winter market. This year for May and June, we are $2,200 ahead of our token sales for this time last year.”
Novak, who is a former board member of CISA, says CISA is an indispensable resource for Western Massachusetts agriculture. Those folks are so knowledgeable, and they put on so many workshops and meetings,” she says. “They’re trying to cover all the aspects of agriculture. I go to everything they have for farmers’ market managers because we managers pick up ideas from each other. They raise the awareness of the value of agriculture in the three counties. In recent years they’ve been giving more attention to Hampden County because they recognize that there are still needs down here to buy local food.”•
CISA was the first of the buy-local organizations in Massachusetts. There are four regional groups and CISA was at the forefront of this kind of movement nationally. So it’s very much helped to foster the new food movement—or the local food movement—that has been so important in bringing consumers and food retailers and restaurants together with growers and food suppliers. That’s helped improve the economic viability of agriculture.
Farming is a challenging way of life. What CISA has done in our area is create new opportunities for farmers to connect with consumers more directly, to add value to their products, and to greatly expand the types of food products that are available and very much in demand. I think CISA has done a lot to educate consumers about the added nutritional value of local food, which consumers want increasingly now. That has allowed farmers to earn a higher value for their products and be able to stay in business. That protects the land and provides the open space that is so important to our landscape and quality of life.
What CISA has pioneered both in Massachusetts and nationally has grown exponentially over the last 20 years. Agriculture in our region today is far more viable as a vocation for people than it was 20 years ago.
The growth in farmers’ markets and CSAs—these have all been fostered by the type of work CISA does and the connections they make between farmers and consumers. It has resulted in initiatives in state government, like being able to use SNAP cards at farmers’markets, like being able to sell wine at farmers’ markets. It’s seen an incredible explosion of the variety of farmers’ markets. I stopped by the Northampton farmers’ markets and the variety was astounding to me: meat and special kinds of cheeses. We even have a slaughterhouse in Athol.
I have legislation pending that would establish a state meat inspection program and encourage more slaughter facilities, for poultry as well, so farmers can expand their operations in meat and poultry. Today they can’t meet the demand. There are not enough slaughter facilities. I’m proposing that the inspection program be changed in the state government from the Department of Public Health to the Department of Agricultural Resources. I think MDAR will be able to support more economic growth in agriculture by farmers who want to market local meat and be able to sustain their operations more successfully.
Clarkdale Fruit Farms have been “selling local” for nearly 100 years, says Tom Clark, who represents the third of four (and soon to be five) generations of Clarks who’ve owned and operated the Deerfield fruit farm since 1915. Thanks in large part to CISA’s work over the last two decades, Clark says with a chuckle, “everyone is coming around to our ways of doing business.”
“CISA has been on the forefront of the buy local movement since the beginning,” Clark says. “CISA’s Local Hero campaign is now almost taken for granted, but it has been very important.” Clark credits CISA not only with helping farmers connect with local consumers, but helping to drive a broader public discussion about the value farmers play in matters of food security—”It’s part of national security, really,” Clark says—and the preservation of open land. “You keep land open and safe from development by keeping farmers on the land,” Clark says. He points to the flourishing CSA farms of the Valley as one sign of CISA’s impact on land preservation locally.
Clark says he’s been gratified to see how supportive his native region, the upper counties of the Pioneer Valley, have been. “Hampshire and Franklin Counties have been very supportive of CISA’s efforts,” he says. “And now we’re seeing those efforts taking root in Hampden County.”•