If you're near the Boston Common Wednesday, there's a good chance you'll see some cows, pigs and sheep roaming around. It's the 6th annual Livestock on the Common Day, which is when local farmers bring their animals along to discuss farm policy with lawmakers and show off their animals to consumers.
The event is part of a growing trend to help the state’s beef farmers and others showcase their products and meet the demand of what's being coined a "buy local" movement.
Dewey Square in Boston is one of many local farmers markets selling homegrown products. Tents of vendors set up every Tuesday and Thursday across from South Station, including one that sells locally-raised beef, pork, lamb and chicken.
Customer Valbona Schwab of Newton stopped to buy poultry and meat for her family at the Lilac Hedge farm stand.
"I try to bring food to my family that has been raised the right way and treated well and also makes you feel good once you eat it, because it hasn't been fed chemicals," she said.
Schwab is prepared to pay higher prices for local products. She spent $178 dollars buying duck, ribs and lamb chops for her family for a birthday celebration. It adds up quickly when you're paying $20 per pound for rib chops, but she says she doesn't mind spending more.
"I’m from Albania originally," she said, "I grew up with a backyard farm all my life, and I grew up with food that tasted like real food, and I’m so thrilled to see that Massachusetts is moving in a good way when it comes to food.”
The growing interest in purchasing locally grown foods is helping to increase the number of farms in Massachusetts. There are about 30 percent more farms operating in the state than there were 15 years ago, according to the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation. Some of the farms raise beef. Right now, 73 beef farms in Massachusetts sell directly to consumers.
Farm Bureau Policy Director Brad Mitchell said there's a resurgence in interest around agriculture because people prefer to buy local.
"If you look at Massachusetts, all farmers have high production costs between land, labor and regulations, and it’s basic economics," he said. "You cut out the middle man and you sell directly to the consumer. It’s worked well for fruit and vegetable growers, but with dairy and meat there’s some processing involved.“
One of the largest beef farms in Massachusetts, Lilac Hedge Farm, is a 350-acre livestock farm in Holden. Farm owner Ryan MacKay says farming runs in his family. His grandfather was a dairy farmer in town, and that's where he got the name for his farm.
"My grandfather actually lives on the other side of town. He’s 93 and loves swinging through here and checking on things and giving suggestions," MacKay said.
MacKay appreciates the input he gets from his grandfather's experience — he's new to this. MacKay started his farm six years ago, after graduating from UMass Amherst. Three years ago he purchased the Holden farmland, and that's allowed him to consolidate the business and stay more focused on production.
"All together here we’ve got about 80 acres planted to pasture, and we're in the middle of trying to fence the last of it. So when it's finished, it will be eight beef pastures here in total," he said.
The total number of heads of cattle is down in Massachusetts in recent years, but MacKay says there's local demand for his grass-fed black Angus cows, which he raises free of antibiotics, steroids, and growth hormones. The slaughter is done elsewhere, but locally.
While nearly 100 Massachusetts farms are selling beef directly to consumers, hundreds more work with cattle. According to the USDA's National Agriculture Statistic Service (NASS), in 2012 there were 628 beef operations (animals raised on a farm for meat) in Massachusetts, which is down from 804 in 2007. Many sell their products through CSA’s — Community Supported Agriculture programs. That's where customers buy a share of the farm and receive products from the farm every so often.
Some Massachusetts lawmakers are also looking to help farmers. Stow Representative Kate Hogan is sponsoring an estate tax bill that would allow farmers to keep land in their families at a reduced tax rate. "It's difficult because farmers tend to be land rich and cash poor. Often they don't have the cash on hand to pay the estate tax and are forced to sell some or all of the land to do so," said Hogan.
According to USDA statistics, cash receipts of cattle sales in Massachusetts were around $9 million dollars in 2017 — and that’s a few hundred thousand more than the previous year. While MacKay won't reveal his farm revenue, he said, "we’ve paid the mortgage for the last three years and we're too blessed to be stressed.”
This article has been updated.