Keep Berkshire Farming

Despite recent research and popular media attention for the economic and environmental benefits of local food systems, US food production is still becoming increasingly centralized. As land values skyrocket and farm subsidies are disproportionately diverted to the Midwest, the farmers of Berkshire County are finding it more and more difficult to stay in the black. Once a prosperous dairy region, Berkshire County has lost 40 percent of its cows since 1992. Over the summer of 2012, four Williams College students, along with Sarah Gardner of the Center for Environmental Studies, set out to investigate agriculture in North Berkshire County and identify strategies to increase the region’s food self-sufficiency. Partnering with the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, and the volunteer community initiative, Keep Berkshire Farming, Sam Murray ’14, David Nolan ’13, Cary White ’13, and Emily Ury ’13 spent their summer interviewing farmers and restaurants about the challenges and opportunities for agriculture in the Berkshires. At Friday’s Log Lunch, Sarah Gardner and the four students presented their findings.

One obstacle for local production is lack of institutional demand for local produce. In a survey of 40 area restaurants, White found that restaurant owners generally lack time and information to coordinate orders and delivery with local farms. White recommends the development of a restaurant-farmer listserv, a contract structure, and food hubs to facilitate these missed transactions.

Nolan, Ury, White, Murray, and Professor Gardner (from left)

Murray, Nolan, and Ury spent their summer interviewing 50 of the region’s farmers. Murray explains that land in the Berkshires is best suited for growing dairy, beef, and hay, not a diverse mixture of vegetables and greens. Unfortunately, young people today tend to be more excited about the latter, and they are uninterested in the tough life of raising cattle. Ury’s research highlighted the fact that Berkshire County exports 80 percent of the milk it produces. Some of Ury’s suggestions for keeping more Berkshire milk in the Berkshires include co-ops, local branding, and a Berkshire processing facility.  Nolan’s research focuses on opportunities for expanding pig and poultry production. In developing these sectors, Nolan stresses the need for a local slaughterhouse and better marketing. Nolan also discusses the importance of tax abatement programs to relieve some of the pressure on farmers to sell out of their farms and subdivide their land. The students’ summer findings add to a growing body of research on Berkshire County agriculture conducted by Gardner’s students in partnership with the Regional Planning Commission over the past several years.