Since colonial times, The Bay State has had a cherished legacy as an agricultural region. Although it ranks only 43rd among states in agricultural production, it ranks 4th in net farm income per acre. Massachusetts agriculture remains a vital industry, especially as farmer’s markets, roadside stands, and pick-your-own crops play a new role in increasing profitability. Nationwide, agriculture generates some 22 million jobs, and although most are located off farms – food scientists and engineers, commodity brokers, market analysts, food processors – farmers like LaFleur are an indispensable part of the landscape. And with more farmers retiring – the average age is 55 – programs like Farms Forever provide on-the-ground partnerships to encourage new entry growers. “We see more young people coming in, with no farm background, who just want to have a closer connection to nature and working outdoors,” says LeFleur.
Farmers are seeing huge growth opportunities in agri-tourism, whether it’s running a trout hatchery or operating a bed-and-breakfast on a working dairy farm. LeFleur offers private “Be a Grower” tours of his bogs, the opportunity to don some waders and help with the harvest. “It’s not Disney Land, but it highlights what it takes to produce the cranberries that end up on your table,” he says.
Q: As we speak, it’s winter out, and snow and ice is on the ground. What’s going on with your bogs?
A: Right now we have the bogs flooded to protect the vines from the harsh winter temperatures. We’re monitoring the oxygen levels in the water to make sure the vines have enough to “breathe.” If the snow and ice start blocking the sunlight, we have to pull the water out and let the ice lie flat on the vines. Farming today has a lot of technology, science and computers involved.
Q: How did you get interested in agriculture?
A: I went to the Bristol Country Agricultural High School, one of three high schools in the state that offer specialty training in agriscience and agribusiness. I was a FFA (Future Farmers of America) member there, which really helped sparked my interest. I majored in fruit and vegetable production at Stockbridge School of Agriculture at UMass Amherst, then worked for a family cranberry farm; became a pest management scout; and eventually became executive director of the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers. Association.
Q: You’re a farmer, but there are many ancillary fields that overlap with farming. What do these include?
A: There’s the multiplier effect – one thing leads to another, whether it’s irrigation contractors, equipment professionals, or crop consultants. As growers we also deal with laborers, land-use engineers, hydrologists, attorneys, accountants, and others.
Q: As a cranberry farmer, do you ever get tired of eating cranberries?
A: No, I try to eat them daily, in one form or another, whether it’s dried and sweet cranberries right out of the bag or in a granola bar. They’re very good for you.