The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources history rests on the agricultural societies organized in the 1790's. The county chairmen of these societies came together in 1852 to make up the first Board of Agriculture. The Board has served continually for 140 years to promote crop and animal husbandry in the Commonwealth.
The Massachusetts Board of Agriculture started in 1852, predated the organization of the United States Department of Agriculture in 1862. (1855 Annual Report by Charles L. Flint, Secretary of the Board of Agriculture.) The purpose of the Board and its staff was to represent fairly, every class of agricultural knowledge in the state.
By 1902, the Board had fine-tuned its purpose to taking an active role in the development of the Massachusetts farmer. Secretary of the Board of Agriculture, J.W. Stockwell said in his report, "This Board is on the outlook constantly for such advances in the methods of improved agriculture as shall bring comfort and beauty to the home and content and prosperity to the farmer. It has been alert and quick to protect the farmer in his productions, to investigate and urge the newer lines of safe advancement in method and product, and to stimulate to experiment and achievement in developing and demonstrating and advanced agriculture for the benefit of the state."
The Secretary served the Board of Agriculture from 1852 to 1919, the year the Department of Agriculture was formed.
The first Commissioner was Wilfred Wheeler of Falmouth. He served the State Board of Agriculture from 1913 to 1918 and as Commissioner from 1919 to 1920. Since Wheeler, it has been occupied by 13 men from different background with different ideas and under different circumstances. Thanks to their devotion, agriculture still thrives even today in this largely urban state.
Commissioner Arthur Gilbert, appointed by Governor Cox, served for over a decade from 1921 to 1933. He was from Belmont.
The activities of the Department in 1921 were very similar to those of the Department today. Commissioner Gilbert reported in that year that the Department and its branches played a large part in the development, regulation and promotion of Massachusetts agriculture. The Division of Markets helped farmers with more economical marketing and informed consumers of market conditions and prices. The Division of Fairs worked to stimulate competition in order to improve the quality of agricultural practice.
Gilbert also reported that there seemed to be an increased interest in agriculture from the general public through a large demand for publications. At that time, and until 1925, the department included a Division of Information. In recent years here has also been a large demand for agricultural information, especially from the media. The Department has been working to increase its public information effort through publications, and print and broadcast media.
Edgar Gillette also of Belmont, appointed by Governor Ely, succeeded Gilbert to become the Department's third Commissioner. He served from approximately 1934 to 1937.
William Casey of Pittsfield succeeded Gillette. He was appointed by Governor Curley. He served from 1938 to 1941, just prior to World War II. He instituted the annual reports that include excerpts from each division. At the commencement of WWII, he was put on military leave and replaced by Acting Commissioner
Commissioner Webster of Blackstone served during the war from 1941 to 1945. He was an innovative thinker in a period when new problems and complications had arisen with the coming of World War. One of his more famous quotes was that he was called "a farmer by politicians, a politician by farmers." He realized that Massachusetts agriculture had to be run on a war basis. There were massive cutbacks in farm labor and in departmental staff, immensely complicating the problem of growing food for the armies. Nevertheless, the remaining staff labored devoutly, working beyond their Civil Service requirements by dividing up the work of vacant positions.
The new dilemma was one of production rather than marketing which was so often the case in the past. The Department set up many labor programs to help combat falling production levels due to labor shortages with significant success. On the other hand, the markets were abundant, especially since the war market was so demanding because it fed millions of our people overseas. But the war market's demands for quality were as great their demands for quantity. It became necessary for increased inspection of farms and of every truckload of vegetables and fruits in order to satisfy the qualitative standards. This is where grade consciousness in the overall market became of utmost importance. Inspection and the function of the Department of Agriculture begins here with Louis Webster.
Following WWII, Frederick Cole, a professor at UMass Amherst was appointed by Governor Tobin and stepped into the office of Commissioner serving the Commonwealth from 1945 to 1948. One of his interests was in the State Soil Conservation Enabling Act, for which he had successfully lobbied in the state legislature. He then appointed supervisors to work on soil and conservation issues. Another first initiated by Cole was dairy inspection, still performed today by the Department's inspectors. Through his efforts, every county has at least one area set aside for soil and water conservation.
John Chandler, an apple grower from Sterling, was appointed by Governor Bradford. As Commissioner between 1948 and 1951, he praised the Massachusetts farmer as the most progressive in the world. With the New England News Service, he informed the public of the job Massachusetts farmers were doing and asked for a mutual respect between the farmer and his urbanite neighbors. He developed a greater understanding between the urbanite and the farmer, in the hope that together they might ensure a bright future for Massachusetts Agriculture.
Henry Broderick, an apple grower from Sterling, was appointed by Governor Dever, and served during part of the Korean War from 1951 to 1954. Commissioner Broderick enlarged the calf-raising program at the DAR in the hopes of turning the tide on decreasing numbers of cows providing dairy products in the state.
The office of the Assistant Commissioner was established under the term of Roy Hawes, a florist from Sudbury. Hawes served from 1954 to 1958 and was appointed by Governor Herter. During his stint as Commissioner, he became more involved in the licensing of milk and poultry dealers.
Charles McNamara, a dairy farmer from Stoughton, succeeded Hawes as Commissioner. He was appointed by Governor Furcolo in 1958 and was subsequently reappointed Commissioner by Governor Volpe, Governor Peabody, and again by Governor Volpe, until in 1968 when he left office. During his tenure, an insect called the European Chafer was discovered in Boston, ravaging the blue grass of many surrounding communities until its spread was placed under control by the DAR.
Nathan Chandler, appointed by Governor Volpe, served from 1969 to 1975. He was an apple grower from Sterling and the son of former Commissioner John Chandler. Commissioner Chandler started the well-known "Countryside Radio Program" on WBZ which ran every weekend morning, reaching often on cold winter mornings to faithful listeners in 38 states. WBZ reported that this program received more weekly mail (up to 800 letters per week) than any other radio program on their station.
Frederic Winthrop of Ipswich was Commissioner from 1975 to 1984. He was appointed by Governor Dukakis. Winthrop was interested in keeping state owned land in agriculture, in land preservation, and in creative direct marketing. He instituted the regulation of pesticides in the Commonwealth, protecting our land as well as our health against their harmful effects. He established the Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program which buys the development rights to farmlands all across the state, ensuring the safety of the environment. His work continues to protect priceless agricultural areas throughout the Commonwealth. In 1990, Commissioner Winthrop's Farmland Protection Program received the honor of being included in the final 1990 Farm Bill and has now become supported financially on a national basis. Commissioner Winthrop was honored in 1982 with the presidency of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA). Their convention was held in Boston during that year.
August (Gus) Schumacher Jr.
Commissioner August (Gus) Schumacher Jr. of Lexington succeeded Commissioner Winthrop in 1985, taking over from Acting Commissioner Lew Wells on June 3rd, 1985. Appointed by Governor Dukakis, Commissioner Schumacher was subsequently reappointed by the Governor in 1987. Schumacher came from a family vegetable background in the town of Lexington where his father, president of the Boston Market Garden (1950-51) produced from 1938 to 1972.
Schumacher intensified the farmland protection program initiated by Commissioner Winthrop, reaching nearly 300 farm families on protected land approaching 30,000 acres. He also fostered a program with UMass in Integrated Pest Management to assist farmers in improving the management of their farm chemicals.
Market development was a major feature of Schumacher's tenure, with farmers markets expanding from 34 to 88 and roadside stands showing strong growth. He started several promotional events including an annual Tomato Contest and Cider Taste-off, and fostered relationships between restaurateurs and farmers through events and the "Fresh Connection" newsletter.
Commissioner Schumacher created the Farmers' Market Coupon program in 1986, a program that provides coupons to low-income mothers and elders to use at farmers' markets. The program also helps to develop markets for local farmers. The coupon program was replicated by numerous other states and eventually became a federal program.
During Winthrop and Schumacher's time, Massachusetts farm numbers rose from 5,400 to 6,800, at a time when farms nationally declined by 200,000. Schumacher resigned in September 1990, after serving slightly over five years.
Commissioner Greg Watson of Falmouth was appointed by Governor Dukakis in late September, 1990. Watson had a long connection to Massachusetts farming, first serving in the Department's Bureau of Markets in 1978, later in the Secretariat of Economic Development on fostering agri-bio-technology and finally as Director of the New Alchemy Institute in Falmouth, an applied research farm with close links to the cranberry, vegetable and green industry. His first hands on experience with agriculture started in 1978 as he worked with urban community groups and rural farmers to develop a network of six neighborhood-based farmers' markets in Greater Boston. He was also a founding member of the Massachusetts Federation of Farmers' Markets.
His major accomplishments as Commissioner included the promulgation of innovative groundwater protection regulations designed to prevent contamination of aquifer recharge areas; outreach program to farmers to adopt integrated pest management techniques; working to make Massachusetts the first state to establish a dairy pricing system; and clarification of acceptable agriculture practices under the Wetlands Protection Act.
Jonathan L. (Jay) Healy
Jonathan L. (Jay) Healy was appointed by Governor William F. Weld in 1993. Under Commissioner Healy's tenure, the Department's dual missions were protection and preservation of farmlands and promotion of farm and food products. He created the Farm Viability Enhancement Program, which takes the unique approach of protecting farmland by helping farmers increase the profitability and environmental viability of their farms. This first in the nation program has won national awards and has been replicated by other states.
Prior to becoming Commissioner, Healy served as the state representative from Charlemont (1970-1993). While in the legislature, he sponsored or cosponsored legislation such as the APR program, the Dairy Stabilization Act, and the Water Management Act. He has supported the Integrated Pest Management Program.
Commissioner Healy graduated from Suffolk University Law School (1981) and Williams College (1968). A working farmer, Jay has managed his family's Hall Tavern Farm since the death of his father. The farm was once a thriving egg and dairy farm. It now directly markets finished lumber and flooring from its 500 wooded acres. Jay is married to Elizabeth Sutton Healy. They have two children, Eben and Elizabeth.
Douglas P. Gillespie
Douglas P. Gillespie of Weston served as Commissioner from April 3, 2002 to January 4, 2007. Gillespie joined DAR at a time when the Department faced major challenges, due to budget reductions and increased need for department services and programs. He was a strong advocate for the continuation of the "toolbox" approach to providing programs for Massachusetts farmers.
Under Commissioner Gillespie, funding for the Farm Viability Enhancement Program, Agricultural Business Training, and Agro-Environmental Enhancement were all increased. DAR's Agricultural Preservation Restriction program was successfully integrated into Governor Romney’s “Smart Growth” initiative, thereby ensuring the necessary funding for the program. Gillespie also expanded the role of DAR as important for the future in bio-security initiatives.
During Gillespie's term, farmers throughout the Bay State were recognized at #1 in the nation for direct farm to consumer sales on a per farm basis. Another major initiative of the Gillespie era was the formation of nearly 100 Agricultural Commissions in cities and towns across the Commonwealth, returning the voice of agriculture to municipal government and the passage of over 40 Right-to Farm bylaws to reaffirm each town's commitment to the state's protections for agriculture.
Douglas W. Petersen
Douglas W. Petersen of Marblehead served as Commissioner from to November 2007 to April 10, 2009. As State Representative representing Marblehead, Swampscott, and a portion of Lynn for sixteen years, Mr. Petersen served on the Joint Committee of the Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture for his entire legislative career. He served as House vice chairman in 1996 and 1997 and then as House chairman until 2001. He was also a member of the Council of State Governments’ Agricultural Subcommittee.
Among his many legislative accomplishments, Petersen spearheaded the effort to defeat an initiative by milk processors to repeal the New England Dairy Compact, which would have dramatically lowered prices paid to Massachusetts Dairy Farmers. He also led efforts to increase technical assistance to farmers in the application of integrated pest management techniques, which save farmers money and provided for safer and healthier farm management. He then authored legislation to extend those pesticide management techniques employed by Massachusetts farmers to schools, playgrounds, and daycare facilities in the Children and Families Protection Act.
Scott J. Soares
Scott J. Soares, originally of Dartmouth, Massachusetts, was appointed Commissioner in April 2009 where he led the Department until April 2012. Prior to serving as Commissioner, Soares spent over a decade working in a variety of capacities at MDAR including his position as the Commonwealth’s first Aquaculture Coordinator, Acting Director of Agricultural Development , Chief of Staff and Assistant Commissioner and as Acting Commissioner from January to November of 2007.
Soares’ tenure as MDAR Commissioner came at both an exciting and challenging point of time. Interest in locally grown agriculture was soaring while at the same time budgetary constraints made it difficult to grow the Department’s 60+ programs in response to demands. Challenges regardless, Scott was able to maintain and strengthen services while at the same time cultivating expansion of agricultural support from an increasingly diverse constituency with interests in local and regional food systems.
Honored by the industry, non-industry, and his peers as a strong advocate for sustainable agriculture, Soares forged many key partnerships, task forces and programs within and beyond state government to meet the challenges and opportunities at hand. Soares’ accomplishments included co-chairing a gubernatorial-directed Dairy Farm Revitalization Task Force that resulted in establishment of the Dairy Farm Preservation Act; his commitment to the preservation of working landscapes that saw permanently protected farm land exceed 65,000 acres; nationally unique innovation in the utilization of information technology to promote agriculture; his identified priorities to meet consumer demand for environmentally sustainable and safe agricultural products through the establishment of the Commonwealth Quality Program, Massachusetts Food Policy Council, and expansion of marketing opportunities through an executive order established Public Market Commission; and fostering increased and equitable access for locally grown products through the Massachusetts Gleaning Network.
Greg Watson - 2012-2015
Greg Watson of Falmouth was sworn in to his second term as Commissioner on April 2, 2012. Under Commissioner Watson, the Department’s mission focused on the importance of maintaining and growing the Commonwealth’s capacity to address the nutritional needs of its citizens. He worked to launch a statewide urban-agriculture grants program, and promoted urban agriculture as a way to strengthen the state’s food security. Commissioner Watson also chaired the state’s Public Market Commission, which oversaw the planning and construction of the Boston Public Market, slated to open in 2015. As chair of the Massachusetts Food Policy Council, he played a key role in the launching of a process to develop a strategic plan, with the goal of enhancing the sustainability of the Commonwealth’s food system by identifying future needs and opportunities to address them.
Grandson of a farmer and son of a nursery owner, John Lebeaux was sworn in as Commissioner of the Department by Governor Charlie Baker on February 6, 2015. After working as General Manager of his family’s Shrewsbury Nurseries for twenty-six years, four years as an Urban Horticulturist in NYC, and over five years as Princeton Town Administrator, John served as MDAR Commissioner during the entire Baker-Polito Administration and while assisting the Healey-Driscoll Administration during its transition period.
Serving during a period of time dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic, John and the MDAR team introduced the concepts to create the Covid-19 Food Security Task Force, and the Food Security Infrastructure Grant program, and developed the MassGrown Exchange business to business platform, and multiple guidance documents to allow MA Agriculture to safely serve the public, and thereby remain viable. Other Covid-19 era accomplishments included establishing safe protocols for MDAR field inspectors to continue protecting the Commonwealth’s food supply and creating an online method for pesticide applicators to gain certification. These efforts resulted in a responsive and resilient food system for both the agricultural community and consumers during unprecedented times.
Guided by the principles of consensus building and creating positive change for Massachusetts agriculture and its stakeholders, significant accomplishments include adopting the MA Local Food Action Plan, supporting the Commonwealth’s investment into the construction of the Boston Public Market, creating the MassGrown Wellness mental health and wellness program, the one-stop Climate Smart Agriculture suite of grants, the MA Food Ventures program, making the Agricultural Preservation Restriction program more farmer-friendly, commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the MDAR-managed MA Exposition Building at the Eastern States Exposition fairgrounds, creating a federally mandated Produce Safety Inspection Program, establishing the Industrial Hemp program, promulgating regulations for animal rescue organizations, and expanding the Apiary Program.
During John’s tenure, MDAR responded to outbreaks of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza and the invasive Spotted Lanternfly, and in 2019 coordinated an unprecedented aerial response to the Commonwealth’s most deadly modern time experience with Eastern Equine Encephalitis.
John was an active member of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture serving on several committees including its Board of Directors, and the Northeastern Association of State Departments of Agriculture, in which John served in several positions including as its President in 2019, when MDAR hosted a very successful ten state conference in Brewster. He also served on the Board of Directors of Food Export USA -Northeast for eight years and as its Secretary-Treasurer.
United States Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack appointed John in 2022 to serve as one of the original twelve members of USDA’s Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production Federal Advisory Committee.