McGovern highlights Central Mass. farms that take food benefits

McGovern highlights Central Mass. farms that take food benefits

Marco CartolanoTelegram & GazetteView Comments

Farmer Amanda Barker, center, gives a tour of Cotyledon Farm in Leicester to a group of visitors including U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern, right, Thursday.

LEICESTER — U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern said Massachusetts farms that accept benefits programs are an important part of fighting food insecurity during his tour of a Leicester farm Thursday.

The Worcester Democrat visited Cotyledon Farm as part of his two-day tour of farms in his district, his 11th annual farm tour.

McGovern also visited Growing Places in Leominster and Global Village in Grafton on Thursday. On Wednesday, McGovern toured farms in the western portion of his district, which has around 1,800 farms.      

McGovern said that the farms he toured took Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards for payment from recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and are involved in the Massachusetts Healthy Incentives Program (HIP), which puts money back in EBT cards when the recipient buys healthy food.  

“Good food shouldn’t just be accessible to people of means. Good food should be accessible to everybody. It’s a fundamental human right,” McGovern said. “I love coming to these farms because I admire the skill it takes to be a farmer — I would probably last a minute-and-a-half on this farm before I said ‘enough.’ “

Programs such as SNAP and HIP help both residents who need to get nutritious food and farmers who get more business from the programs, McGovern said.

Winton Pitcoff, director of the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative, said that July was the first month when sales through HIP were over $1 million.   

Amanda Barker, owner and operator of Cotyledon Farm, said food banks or food pantries will often purchase bulk food where producers may receive less money than from a direct purchase or a community-supported agriculture (CSA) arrangement. 

“Direct-to-sales is the best possible relationship for both the consumer and the producer,” Barker said.

Cotyledon Farm is a 60-acre farm that specializes in mixed vegetables and perennial herbs and primarily uses a CSA model.

Recognition of New England and Massachusetts agriculture in Washington, D.C., had grown over time, McGovern said.

As a member of the House Committee on Agriculture, McGovern said that he has had to speak about the agricultural opportunities in the state, and he wants to bring Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to Massachusetts to hear from farmers about areas where they feel the federal programs need more flexibility in addition to possible new programs that better fit New England. 

U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern listens as farmer Amanda Barker speaks about the challenges of farming as she gives a tour of Cotyledon Farm in Leicester on Thursday.

McGovern has also advocated for a new White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, Hunger and Health, which he said should include agriculture and farming. 

While McGovern said the original 1969 conference made progress on food insecurity and created initiatives such as the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, he said it had flaws that came from not bringing in a diverse array of voices that should be addressed in a future conference.  

McGovern also spoke of wanting to not just involve the U.S. Department of Agriculture in a conference, but every federal agency such as the U.S. departments of transportation and energy as well as farmers in the private sector and nonprofits.      

“We want there to be a more holistic view. We need to connect the dots. Because, quite frankly, the status quo isn’t good enough and there are too many people in this country who are hungry,” McGovern said. “It was not just because of the pandemic. Before the pandemic, 37 million people in this country were hungry. We all should be ashamed of that fact and we could do something about it.”  

Ashley Randle, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Agricultural Resources, said that the state has supported funds for food insecurity grant projects.

Randle said that money secured infrastructure improvements for state farmers such as refrigeration. Farmers have also received more support than ever before from USDA programs during the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.

Local activists make PPE for frontline health care workers

Amanda Barker, M.S. ’11, leads grass roots efforts to helpApril 16, 2020 

By Kathryne Sonnett

As the spread of Covid-19 continues, the need for personal protective equipment (PPE) for first responders and health care workers is growing. Amanda Barker, M.S. ’11, a member of the Worcester nonprofit makerspace Technocopia, realized that she and her colleagues had the ability to help.

Barker created the Worcester Face Shield project, a partnership of makers ramping up production to create face shields to protect local health care providers against infection.

“I don’t have some personal connection other than seeing that there was a need,” Barker says. “The sense of urgency was very clear as we started to hear from friends and family about their experiences in healthcare. The corner-cutting people had to do just to show up to work was horrible.”

Seeing the methods the Charlestown Face Shield project is using to create PPE, Barker realized that she could do the same thing in Worcester. “We’ve been communicating with people working in Charlestown about materials and sourcing, and they’ve been developing and perfecting the process of producing the shields. We are following suit,” Barker says.

While the materials used to make face shields are not what the Technocopia artists typically work with, Barker realized they have the skills to make them and just needed to find the components.

Amanda Barker
Amanda Barker, M.S. ’11, models one of her face shields.

Although the members of Technocopia were unable to meet about PPE in person because of social distancing restrictions, the project brought together engineers and experienced material scientists, along with tinkerers with 3D printers who wanted to help.

Among Technocopia staff and members, seven 3D printers are running in individual homes, printing head bands. Barker is taking the lead on another face shield design that uses a plastic sheet and foam head band and does not rely on 3D printing.

“Everyone began pooling resources, sharing who they know and what they know how to do, purchasing materials to make what we could, and it started from there,” says Barker.

According to Barker, Lauren Monroe, co-executive director of Technocopia, had been contacted by Salmon Health to see if they could offer support in producing face shields.

As the Worcester group is ramping up production, Barker is getting extensive help from her network of local activists to collaborate and share resources. Joshua Swalec, a local artist blacksmith who owns Ferromorphics Blacksmithing, is working on components at his Millbury shop. Artists from the New Street Glass Studio in Worcester are also forming the shields, and members of The Worcshop are cutting elastic and polycarbonate components.

“Josh and I are both metal workers and have access to the shop and we have tools. The design has a number of components but it is not overly complicated so with the right tools and people and time it is doable,” Barker says.

Barker arrived in Worcester to attend Clark, earning a master’s degree in environmental science and policy in 2011. As part of a graduate school project in 2010, she created Nuestro Huerto, a still-thriving urban farm in Worcester that is now a growing space for local families.

“My time at Clark gave me context, language, and connections I may not otherwise have had access to. I learned that change must happen at the human and community level so that’s where I began my work — and where I continue to do so,” Barker says.

She moved to Leicester in 2017 and is the owner and operator of Cotyledon Farm, a community-based agriculture program where produce is grown by and for members.

The farm has become the “central command” point for the shields — some are assembled there and other makers bring completed units there to be counted and distributed to health care workers. “People drop off face shields one day, and we send them to different places the next,” Barker says.

The process of producing the face shields is constantly evolving. “We are figuring it out as we go along,” says Barker. “Our goal is 2,000 shields and we are working with other groups in the area to see what we can come up with. We are all activists in different realms and have networks of people who are willing to answer the call.”

The work is truly a grass roots effort, she adds, as the group relies solely on donations to cover the costs of the materials. Barker says they are doing their best to reimburse people who have been purchasing materials with the funds that are raised through private donations or through donations to assist in face shield production through Technocopia’s website.

The Worcester Face Shield Facebook page has a link to the intake form where health care workers can contact Barker to request shields, or she can be contacted directly via email at

Farms are falling, but more ‘young producers’ in region …Worcester Telegram

(Amanda Barker) “as a Clark University graduate school project in 2010, she described her approach to agriculture as “reckless enthusiasm.”

read more of the article Farms are falling but more young producers’ in region   -a recent write up in the Worcester Telegram.

Cotyledon Farm in the Telegram & Gazette 7/10/18

Holy Cross summer course explores realities of food production at Cotyledon Farm

By Scott O’Connell ~Telegram & Gazette Staff

LEICESTER – After a brief tour of the crops, students in the College of the Holy Cross “Food and Power” summer course soon realized what a good portion of their field trip to Cotyledon Farm on Tuesday would entail: good old-fashioned labor.

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Separated into groups, the 16 students, many of whom are athletes at the school, were assigned either weeding or rock-removing duties – just two of the myriad tasks it takes to operate the farm.

“It’s hard work. It’s sort of a ‘grow your own vegetables’ character-growing experience,” said history professor Christopher Staysniak, who teaches the class.

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Mr. Staysniak, who also taught a more traditional version of the course last fall, said the summer edition, which has incorporated multiple field trips and visiting presenters, is intended to explore the complex network of modes of production, people, and politics that result in food being virtually instantly available to people like his students.

“I don’t really have any background in it. But I’m a big fan of experiential learning, and I thought food lends itself to that,” he said.

The class, which wraps up next week after running three times a week since June 4, is part of an elective summer academic session the college piloted last year. There were seven courses offered this summer in all, according to Holy Cross’s website, covering topics including terrorism, the psychology of adolescence, and environmental chemistry.

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While the college’s administration has not officially decided whether to continue the summer session after this year, the program’s director, Ronald Jarret, said he thinks “people are moving ahead as though it will be.”

“It seems to be a win-win. The faculty seem to be enjoying the opportunity, and students seem to be doing well and it enjoying it as well,” he said.

Students in Mr. Staysniak’s class were appreciative of the option to take a course over the summer, even as they wiped sweat from their brows after toiling under the sun at Cotyledon Farm.

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“If I weren’t in a class, I’d be resting all day,” said Miles Alexander, a junior on the Crusaders football team, who added that the credit-bearing course is also a convenient alternative for athletes if they’re unable to pack in enough classes during their season.

Sophomore Renée LeBlanc, a volleyball player at the college, said even Tuesday’s expedition, weeding and all, wasn’t a bad way to spend the morning.

“I don’t mind it at all,” she said during a break in the shade. “It’s nice to be outside.”

“The main benefit (of the summer classes) is the students are just not so stressed out” like they might be during the regular academic year, said Mr. Staysniak. “Here we can really sit with the material and take our time with it. They offer a really rich learning experience in that sense.”

Tuesday’s class, for instance, was intended in part to show students the smallest end of the food production spectrum, or as Cotyledon Farm manager Amanda Barker put it, “give them a sense of the scale of something opposite to industrialized agriculture.”

While Cotyledon’s farm share program, which takes up a 1-acre plot off Henshaw Street, has “multiple objectives,” according to Ms. Barker – not the least of which is becoming sustainable – probably “the most important part of it” is its emphasis on labor and building relationships, she said. It’s a lesson also rooted in Mr. Staysniak’s curriculum for the course, which among other aspects of food production also looks at the disparity in power people have along the chain of delivery, from the migrants employed to work at large farms to the poor people living in “food deserts” who have limited access to fresh meat and produce.

“We don’t necessarily think what the background of (our) food is,” he said, explaining that a key goal of the course is to get students to think about where their food comes from, and who is providing it.

Students said they found the class illuminating.

“I really liked it,” Ms. LeBlanc said. “I feel like I learned a lot.”

Times they are a changin’: Product aggregation, and the Organic standard

Winter has always been a time for deep reflection for me. Winter encourages travel with all of the holidays, and thus more time on the road to think in silence.  Winter generously provides us shorter daylight hours, which for me, has allowed more time to read, to tend to the wood stove, listen to podcasts, get more sleep, and leave room in my day to reflect on my dreams.

I just received the latest issue of The Natural Farmer, put out by NOFA (Northeast Organic Farmers Association). NOFA, a member supported organization, puts on two big conferences every year for gardeners and farmers alike, as well as countless other workshops hosted by farmers and homesteaders all over the state of Massachusetts and beyond.

In every issue of The Natural Farmer, they pick a theme. And in this one, there was a special supplement included on Organic Aggregators. The headline, “CSAs, Aggregators, and Hubs, Oh My,” got my attention. Cotyledon Farm’s primary source of income is it’s CSA, or farm share program, and anytime I see writing about CSAs-it’s usually about the trends of the industry, and I am always surprised by how fast things are changing. Cotyledon Farm plays a tiny part in the grand scheme of CSAs, let alone “Organic” production in Massachusetts. However, we are all affected by the tides of industry.

Two things I want to address: Aggregators and…Organic. I will link to the relevant articles once I gain access to the electronic version of the newest issue of The Natural Farmer. In the mean time-I’ll give you a quick synopsis of the situation at hand.

You may have noticed an influx of CSAs, Farm Shares, and organic, local food boxes available to you online, often delivered to your door. You have a million choices available to you-vegetarian, add bread, cheese, coffee, fish, mushrooms. Some of these aggregators include organic produce, as well as a number of other non-organic products. Some of these aggregators use the term local, while purchasing food from an extremely large geographic area. Advertising solicits an environmentally friendly, socially-responsible decision is being made here.

One thing is for certain-consumers want to support local farmers, and are making efforts to do so.  But, often consumers are not so certain how to measure their impact, and whether or not their dollars are actually going directly to farmers for their products.  I think this one line in the article sums it up, “Now that local food has become big business, there is no limit to the possible competition.” It’s true, for example, that both Target and Walmart are attempting to enter this “market.” It’s become fashionable to buy local. Just like Organic has. (more on that soon) Ugh. Fashion can be great-when it’s done mindfully.

So friends, when you think local-and see it as a grocery store, or in an aggregate box-ask yourself who you are paying for this product, and for what, exactly, are you paying? Consider delivery, packaging, cooling as well as the potential multiple middle men that are charging for their services and goods. But what’s happening as this “value” (aka convenience) is added to the original products of fresh produce, fish, meat, etc. is that what is available to be paid to the farmer is diminished.

We want consumers to be satisfied, and sometimes convenience really does satisfy, and I get that:  access to a traditional CSA and attending farmers market isn’t always possible for busy families.  But also, what I really want, is to run a fiscally sound, community-based farm that allows me and those who work with me, to have a decent quality of life, and for that, we need devoted community members willing to directly support the CSAs and farms. Think about this: as quality of life diminishes for just about anyone in the US, usually, it indicates a greater reliance on convenience-items to get through the day. Convenience items tend to be less nutritious, more expensive, and cause more trash to enter the waste stream. Do you see the cycle? It is not one of elevating our fellow citizens and local businesses to the level of self-sustaining, I can assure you of that. It detracts from that possibility.  So, your contribution and participation really make a difference!

Directly supporting farmers can mean joining a CSA, shopping at local farmers markets or farm stands, as well as mobile markets, where you can buy directly from organizations that support farmers directly. Now, in Massachusetts, consumers who have access to EBT benefits will receive dollar-for-dollar matches of their purchases up to a certain amount, based on family size-somewhere in the ball park of $40-80/month. Thanks DTA! You can also help advertise for your local farmers and markets by sharing on social media (it helps if you go!) and when you do join a cSA, paying the maximum amount you can afford when given the choice of a sliding scale.  And if you’ve got the cash-pay for someone else’s share.

Alright, so for the organic piece-the Organic industry-not one we are directly a part of-but important none the less for our members and consumers at large who strive to eat responsibly, and often choose products under the Organic label because they were told that it is safer for their families, and for earth’s natural systems.

The news it’s two-fold. One. one of the founders of the National Organic Standards Board, Francis Thicke, resigned after 30 years.  Here’s his final statement.  It’s a doozy, and well worth the read. The straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back this time was hydroponics. Organic certification will now include produce that was grown hydroponically. I’ve got plenty of opinions on hydroponics, and I’ll save that for another day.

Two.  There is an ongoing, and worsening trend in the “Organic” industry:  the total lack of transparency, around the Organic standard, particularly for consumers.   Sadly, it’s almost not news anymore.  From the sounds of it, it has been a long, slow, and painful burn that led to Thicke’s decision. And frankly, I am disgusted, too, at the status of the organic produce industry.  I knew there were problems. Btu this brings it to a whole new level.

As Thick points out, there are now “organic” chicken CAFO’s (confined animal feeding operations), “organic” dairy CAFO’s in the order of 15,000 cows! Imported “organic” grain to feed these “organic” animals lack actual documentation proving they are in fact certified,  with some shipments proven fraudulent. Great.

It’s apparent now that the USDA, an extraordinarily powerful pro-big agriculture lobbying group, funded by the government, is increasingly leveraging its power over the NOSB. Now, Thick is proposing the idea of an add-on organic label to help ensure the integrity of the actual Organic standard.  Like, “This one is for sure organic.” An interesting twist is that organic farmers have now created the Organic Farmers Association (OFA) to better lobby for their interests in an all-too common industry-led interests game.

So when people ask, are you Organic? I sometimes shudder, thinking to myself, “God No!” But really, I say, yes, but we are not certified.  We go above and beyond what is now considered organic.  Sadly, I am not sure if that is saying much anymore! In my opinion, the organization is is entirely too unreliable to even bother to consider applying. It’s bureaucratic, expensive, inherently time-consuming and above all else-will most likely not benefit me, the land, or the business at all.  Of course, the practices of organic agriculture are of course-entirely respected. It’s the industry that mucked it all up. I use only OMRI certified soil amendments and fertilizers, fish fertilizer that is analyzed and guaranteed to have no heavy metals, and simple products like neem oil, hydrogen peroxide, castille soap, and the like, that I would put on my body-can also be used to protect plants from pests when used responsibly.

For large farms who want to gain access to larger markets, sell at grocery stores, and other retailers that won’t get a chance to explain what I am commenting on here-it makes sense.  You have to have the label if you want to be recognized as organic. But unfortunately for them-and anyone who reads about the organic industry-my faith in this so-called gold standard is diminishing.

Until next time, Rest well and enjoy the days ahead!