Groton — Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) executive director Annie Cheatham facilitated a discussion with local farmers on the availability of locally grown produce.

The discussion, entitled “The Value of Locally Grown Foods,” had farmers talking about how they run their farms, what challenges they face and how residents of neighboring towns can help ensure continued availability. The discussion was sponsored by the Nashua River Watershed Association.

In her opening remarks, Cheatham said 100 years ago the Groton area was primarily agricultural, but things have changed since then. Losses have affected agricultural capacity both in acreage and the knowledge required to make the land productive.

Mike and Anne Gagnon, Bear Hill Farm, Tyngsboro; Garrett Stillman, Stillman Dairy Farm, Lunenburg; and Carl Hills, Kimball Fruit Farm, Pepperell, all shared their thoughts on keeping their farms going in the face of changing economic trends in agriculture. None of them expect to get rich doing this, but their compensation is only partly financial. They are doing the work they want to be doing.

All three farms have shifted their marketing focus from wholesale to retail, and offer some added benefits that are not available from the big supermarket chains. Just don’t expect that fewer middlemen will mean less expensive goods.

At one time Bear Hill Farm produce was certified organic, but the Gagnons dropped it because of the cost, over $1,000 per year for a certification application.

Stillman Dairy Farm sells milk under their own label, mostly in glass bottles, and they offer a delivery service for those customers who find it inconvenient to get to stores that carry their products. Their herd is all Jersey cows that are fed mostly on grass with some supplemental feed grain. The result is less yield per cow than the big commercial dairies get, but with more protein and butterfat. Stillman cows get no artificial growth hormone.

However, their milk is not eligible for organic certification because of the supplemental feed grain. Organic feed grain is way over budget for the Stillman farm.

Kimball Fruit Farm used to be almost all apples. Year-round competition from Washington state began hitting the wholesale apple market in the early 1980’s, said Hills.

Now his farm produces a variety of vegetables and fruits, most of which are hauled to farmers’ markets in and around Boston. Hills consults Bon Appetit magazine when planning his crops.

Asked to describe what specific challenges they face, all had some issue with government regulations. The Gagnons mentioned paperwork. Stillman noted an increase in the number and expense of required lab tests. Carl Hills has dropped cider because of regulations affecting its production. The costs of fuel and labor were also a common theme.

What can the general public do to support local farmers besides shop at farmers’ markets and farm stands, and become CSA members?

They can talk to the chefs of their favorite restaurants and the produce managers of their favorite supermarkets to encourage the use of more locally produced foods. They can support farm-friendly zoning bylaws and the creation of town Agricultural Commissions if either of these come before town meeting.

According to CISA’s mission statement, it “focuses on strengthening relationships between farmers and consumers, farm profitability, environmental sustainability and preserving rural communities.”

Its major programs are rooted in western Massachusetts, but it also engages in outreach activities in neighboring regions and among related interest groups nationwide.

The presentation was open to the public free of charge. It was hosted by the Nashua River Watershed Association and supported by grants from the Groton Trust Funds’ Lecture Fund and the Environmental Protection Agency.

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