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Aspiring backyard farmers learn best practices

UMass Center for Agriculture’s series of “Mass Aggie” seminars

In postage-stamp plots of land in urban areas and sizable grounds in suburban communities, more and more Massachusetts residents, passionate about eating locally and living sustainably, are raising crops and farm animals on their own property.

As the Massachusetts agricultural landscape expands to include an increasing number of small-scale farmers, a movement to provide education on building and managing backyard farms is gaining momentum in the state’s agricultural community. Local agricultural organizations like the University of Massachusetts Center for Agriculture, Northeast Organic Farming Association, and Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation are targeting this audience by adding workshops for backyard farmers.

At the UMass Center for Agriculture’s series of “Mass Aggie” seminars, UMass Amherst agricultural faculty and Extension staff taught workshops on management practices for backyard farm animals (UMass Amherst was initially named the Massachusetts Agricultural College, popularly referred to as “Mass Aggie.”) The seminars, which focused on topics such as housing, fencing, nutritional needs, breed selection and breeding, and laws and regulations, were held at the UMass Hadley Farm in Hadley, Mass., and at the Bristol County Agricultural High School in Dighton, Mass.

About 25 people attended the first Mass Aggie seminar at the UMass Hadley Farm this past winter. One was an Angora goat farmer from Colrain, Mass, Another a sixth-grader from Westhampton, Mass., that shows her family’s alpacas at 4H fairs. Joe and Deb D’Eramo traveled from Harvard, Mass. to learn about how to expand from gardening vegetables to farming animals.

“Right now we farm for the homestead, but we want to expand into farming poultry and livestock for personal and community purposes,” D’Eramo said.

The morning session featured workshops about dealing with manure, managing pastures, and raising animals for value-added agriculture commodities. The afternoon session included topics such as raising meat rabbits, breeding, and preserving heritage breeds of chickens and turkeys.

Instructor Alice Armen, one of the presenters and a small-scale sustainable agriculture specialist, talked to attendees about the evolving poultry market. According to Armen, many people are now raising their own chickens and turkeys, for personal use or for sale, making this an exciting time for the poultry industry. She explained there is a growing marketplace for heritage breeds and instructed how to breed and reproduce heritage poultry for eggs and meat purposes.

This is news that a self-professed hobby farmer like Nicole Portwood finds exciting. Portwood keeps chickens, rabbits, turkey and goats in her backyard in Brimfield, Mass. Right now she’s farming on the backyard scale, but isn’t counting out the idea of small commercial sales down the road.

“Pets with a purpose is what I call them,” she said. “They’re fun like a dog, but they can also give you eggs, fiber, and milk.”

Portwood got the idea to raise farm animals while working as a professional clown in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ barnyard act.

“I have always loved animals but when I got to work with the animals and see they were so much like dogs (they are really easy to train!), I decided I would love to have some of these critters in my own clowning act,” Portwood explained in an e-mail.

Luckily for Portwood, Brimfield, having adopted the right to farm bylaw, is a declared farming community, and “as far as legal roadblocks or tax-related challenges,” she hasn’t had any issues arise as of yet.”

This is not the case for some hopeful backyard farmers living in cities and towns that prohibit residents from keeping chickens or other farm animals, noted Brad Mitchell, Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation Director of Government Relations, in his talk about the legal rights and responsibilities of backyard farmers.

Even in cities and towns that allow them, residents are often required to obtain a permit and follow strict guidelines determined by the local board of health, often comprised of members with little expertise in agriculture. These sorts of obstacles are being addressed on the state level through legislation aimed at strengthening the off-farm agriculture infrastructure.

In the movement to eat locally produced food, backyard farmers do not have it easy, with challenges like pasture and weed management, manure issues, zoning laws, and slaughtering regulations. And though they may not have much space, experience, or know-how when taking on these challenges, they make up for in passion, patience, and resilience. Farm-fresh eggs are the fringe benefits.

Emily O’Brien, writing; John Solem, photography