TOWNSEND -- With a nod of support from the Board of Selectmen, Conservation Agent Leslie Gabrilska and Americorps regional conservationist Gary Howland are moving forward with plans to ask the town to approve the formation of an agricultural commission.
The board agreed to sponsor the article for the commission at spring Town Meeting. Next, Gabrilska and Howland will be meeting with local farmers in early January to find volunteers to serve on the commission and iron out language for a warrant article to go before Town Meeting. They will also host informational sessions for the public if it is deemed necessary.
Howland, who had also help set up an agricultural commission in Ashburnham, said they will use warrant articles from other towns as models.
"I'm hoping it will be pretty straightforward," said Howland. "Most people have been pretty much supportive of agricultural commissions."
An agricultural commission, unlike entities such as the Conservation Commission, would be nonregulatory.
"It's more of an advocacy group, for networking and support for farmers," said Howland.
An agricultural commission would be able to serve the farming community in a number of ways, said Howland and Gabrilska. First and foremost, it would provide a source of support for local farmers to handle any problems that arise and serve as a unified voice to interact with other boards and commissions.
"Say there's a complaint against a farmer, (with a commission) there's somebody within the town government to speak up for the farmer, someone that's knowledgeable to help resolve issues," said Howland.
"You could have one farmer call you up but to have a whole commission respond is a lot more weight," said Gabrilska.
Other tasks and abilities would include completing agricultural-needs assessments, connecting farmers to business assistance and advocating for farmland protection. It would be up to the farmers to decide how it would operate.
"(A commission) could be whatever you want to make it out to be," said Gabrilska.
Howland and Gabrilska held an exploratory meeting in September to gauge the interest of the farming community.
"They would have to be closely involved and willing to participate," said Gabrilska. "They all agreed that we need one unified voice of agriculture in Townsend. We have a pretty good agricultural community, and we want to see it thrive."
Gabrilska said she has received feedback from residents over the desire for a farmers market, which a commission would help in launching.
"(A farmers market) would spread local awareness of what we have in Townsend," said Gabrilska. "And it supports the community as opposed to conglomerates."
Interestingly, said Howland, Townsend already has a right-to-farm bylaw.
"In most communities, folks start a commission first, then afterwards the commission comes up with the bylaw and puts it before Town Meeting," he said. "It's not an issue, it's just rather unique."
The bylaw protects farmers and their needs as they pertain to farming. For instance, said Howland, many farmers have to start working early in the day and may be using heavy machinery on their property, or they might have the need to spread manure. Some required tasks may not appeal to their neighbors, but the actions are protected by law.
"Farmers have a lot of rights, and well they should. This is where our food comes from," said Howland. "We need to support the farmers we have left."
Selectmen Sue Lisio and Robert Plamondon both vocally supported the formation of the commission at their meeting on Dec. 18.
"I grew up on a farm and I worked on my uncle's farm. It's very near and dear to my heart to keep them going, to eat local and to support local," said Lisio.