Rausch Picks Brains (and Greens) on District Tour

June 12, 2024
• The Massachusetts legislator learned about staffing challenges and stormwater concerns at Volante Farms on Tuesday, June 11 before moderating a panel discussion at Town Hall.

When locals stop by Volante Farms, they often say they “came in for one thing [but] end up with five,” co-owner Dave Volante said. As a fourth-generation operator of the family business, Volante shared his pride in the work while addressing the hardships they face during Sen. Becca Rausch’s tour of the facility Tuesday morning.

Rausch’s visit was part of her SenaTOUR, wherein state senators host trips to their districts with colleagues to highlight small businesses, local landmarks and other destinations. Other legislators — including Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem, D-Newton, Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, and President Pro Tempore William Brownsberger, D-Belmont — also attended.

State Sen. Becca Rausch hands a pile of garlic scapes to Volante Farms co-owner Dave Volante at the farm June 11, 2024. (Cameron Morsberger)

Volante led the group through the farmstand and greenhouse, which was added in 2007, before walking them through part of the 30 acres of farmland. The local farm is currently growing an assortment of crops, including ginger, radishes, rhubarb, kale, green beans, mint and lettuce, which they’re harvesting now. The land has “been a farm for as long as we know,” Volante said.

Lawmakers and their staff got their hands dirty collecting garlic scapes, a curled stem on the plant that can be harvested and cooked. The activity followed a frank discussion around employment at the farm.

Staffing is “by far our biggest challenge,” Volante said. The farm participates in the H-2A program, which allows foreign citizens to work in American agriculture on a short-term basis. Each year, Volante’s sponsors about six people, many from Jamaica, who work on the farm from spring to fall.

However, the program can be cumbersome and challenging, Volante said, and this year, they’re required to pay an asylum program fee that amounts to $100 per worker.

Teenagers could make up the additional work, but they often expect to work less than 40 hours a week, Volante said. H-2A participants also stay through the fall, when students start school up again and work ramps up on the farm, he said.

Without H-2A, farms would be “in dire straits,” Volante said.

“If we didn’t have those guys, we’d be doing things a lot differently,” Volante said of the H-2A workers.

Dave Volante, co-owner of Volante Farms, speaks to legislators in the farm’s greenhouse during state Sen. Becca Rausch’s tour of the facility June 11, 2024. (Cameron Morsberger)

During down time, their 40-person kitchen staff finds themselves preserving crops or performing other tasks — no idle hands. Though they’d like to possibly expand their food service, the farm has found it difficult to staff their operation, Volante said. His 15-year-old, the oldest of four children, works summers there.

For Volante, who lives right next to the farm, “sometimes it’s hard to punch out.”

“I was plunging toilets last weekend… because people are savages,” Volante said, to laughter. “Nobody wants to work retail, especially since Covid.”

Visiting a small, family-run business with members of the Senate was an important stop for Rausch, she said.

“It was great to bring colleagues and members of the leadership team in… People generally don’t think of farming as something that occurs here,” Rausch said. “It’s all interconnected and contributing to the workforce.”

Stormwater can also be a problem at Volante Farms, where “overwhelming” rain leads to flooding, Volante said. He’d prefer a dry season over a wet one, as their drip irrigation system can support dry periods. He said the farm hasn’t experienced “a normal year” of weather since 2019 and have often had to modify their methods since.

While other farmers help when Volante Farms needs to source crops locally, trying to do so “while everyone is under water” is difficult, Volante said. They also are constantly battling large-scale competitors, such as Whole Foods and Roche Brothers.

Stormwater capacity became a central issue in Needham after the Aug. 8 flooding, which Public Works Director Carys Lustig described as “a very intense, short-duration weather event.” Lustig spoke about the town’s efforts to prepare for future storms during a panel discussion at Powers Hall Tuesday afternoon, which Rausch moderated. The panel included Plainville Select Board member Jeff Johnson, Millis DPW Director Jim McKay and Julie Wood, deputy director of the Charles River Watershed Association.

Needham Public Works Director Carys Lustig, center, talks about stormwater during a panel discussion at Powers Hall June 11, 2024. The panel was part of state Sen. Becca Rausch’s tour of the district. (Cameron Morsberger)

About 250 Needham homes were impacted by the extensive rain, Lustig said, and there was three feet of water in several locations. She recalls someone in her office saying “there’s a river running down Dedham Avenue.” About five inches of rain fell in 90 minutes, Lustig said, and it was the most intense storm the town has seen since 2013.

Due to a changing climate, 100-year storms or 500-year storms now can occur within the same month, Lustig said.

“I think the change in outlook is that we know that we are running into weather events that we have never foreseen before,” Lustig said. “That type of intensity of rain and that duration is not something we would expect in New England, but yet it’s happening.”

In the weeks that followed, the DPW and other town departments met with residents, who raised concerns about home design flaws and the town’s obligations to mitigate flooding. From that, Lustig said they crafted some goals.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is build up our roadway infrastructure, so that way, water can be channelized in the road and that can serve as an overflow capacity,” she said. That includes raising curbs and sidewalks “to try to buy time,” Lustig said.

Needham tried to apply for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which provides coverage for extreme events, but the town was deemed not qualified for state or federal assistance, Lustig said. She informed attending legislators that residents took a financial hit because they were ill-informed about flood insurance.

The Volante Farms tour and panel discussion allowed Rausch to enjoy the “beauty and bounty” of her hometown as well as “dig in deep on policy,” she said afterward. As chair of the Joint Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, Rausch said the discussion broadened her understanding of the district’s concerns and how the legislature could better provide support.

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