These were some of the questions addressed during a panel discussion titled “Berkshire’s Farm to Table: Reaching Beyond our Borders” hosted by Berkshire Magazine. The discussion, held Sunday, Oct. 7 at the Triplex Cinema in Great Barrington, follows up on a piece published in the October edition of the magazine that highlights a meal served at Indian Line Farm in South Egremont as part of the Outstanding in the Field national culinary tour. The article touches on the Berkshires’ potential to become a culinary destination prided on the farm to table concept of serving fresh, locally grown food.
“Our area has a unique culinary culture highlighted by poultry farming, fruit growing, vegetable farming,” said Anastasia Stanmeyer, editor of Berkshire Magazine, during the panel’s opening remarks. “But let’s be honest, it’s not really always easy to grow here in the Berkshires.”
Stanmeyer, who served as the moderator, then opened up the discussion to the panel, which included two farmers, a writer, a chef, and the head of a local farm to table agency.
“Local agriculture, particularly local organic agriculture on a smaller scale, has grown remarkably over the last several decades,” said Ted Dobson, head farmer at Equinox Farm in Sheffield. But, he said, the trend is still in an adolescent stage here in the Berkshires.
“We are one of many who are at the forefront if we are,” added Sean Stanton of Blue Hill Farm in Great Barrington. “This is not something specific to the Berkshires anymore.”
Indeed, as people are becoming more aware of where their food is coming from, the demand for locally grown food is increasing. Restaurants are starting to respond by employing the farm to table concept, in which chefs use as many locally sourced ingredients as possible.
Brian Alberg is one of those chefs. Alberg, the executive chef at the Red Lion Inn, has been buying directly from local farms for many years. As one of the panelists, he said it’s important to build awareness and recognition that chefs who cook with local ingredients do so because they believe in it, not because it’s a trendy thing to do.
Felix Carroll, Berkshire Magazine writer and author of the piece about the Outstanding in the Field event, brought up a National Restaurant Association poll, which indicated that the top ten restaurants across the country were promoting locally grown food. “This is part of just this great, awesome national conversation, this rebellion against mass-produced food,” he said.
Despite the surge in interest in eating food grown locally, there remains a number of hurdles for both farmers trying to grow that food and consumers trying to access it. Take cost, for example. From a farmer’s perspective, access to finance is often an issue. Dave Inglis, a Housatonic resident who attended the event, was one of the first CSA (community-supported agriculture) farmers in the area. During the Q&A session that followed the panel, he said that “CSAs have solved what I think is the major problem in the area locally, or they’ve partly solved it, which is finance…I don’t think access to land is the problem, it’s access to finance.”
Dobson also acknowledged that “the startup cost for farming is expensive.” He recalled how difficult it was to find land after the farm he had rented for 15 years in Great Barrington was sold to development. “The expense of land in the Berkshires…was extraordinary and I was very fortunate to meet the Sheffield Land Trust at that time.”
Cost can also be inhibiting for some consumers. “A lot of people have that perception that locally grown, organic food is beyond my reach,” said Cory Hines, a Mt. Washington resident who attended the panel discussion. During the Q&A Hines piped up and offered a simple statement – “I vote for the potato.” She said she works with older people through the Senior Center in Great Barrington, and that they think that locally grown food is too expensive. “If a staple, like a potato, could be available at a low cost it would open a very interesting door for many, many low to low-middle income people.”
Alberg, however, said that cost is the lesser issue. “I think given the current economy, people are more willing and wanting to spend money locally.” Convenience, he said, “is a big issue.”
Stanton agrees. “This is not a demand issue, it’s a supply issue,” he said.
“Distribution is an issue for small farmers,” added panelist Angela Cardinali, founder of the group Berkshire Farm and Table. “I would say Southern Berkshire County has a lot more farmers who are out there delivering, and they have an infrastructure to meet those demands,” she said, adding that here in the Berkshires our infrastructure, such as delivery methods and chef-farmer relationships, is “tight-knit” but “there is room for growth.”
As far as chef-farmer relationships go, they have certainly gotten stronger over the years, according to Dobson. “The chefs that do buy from farmers in this area are committed people, and they’ve got a strong commitment to buying locally,” he said.
Still, as Stanton put it, “farming is a risky business.” One concern is the question of how small farmers survive considering the many challenges facing them, such as expensive land, erratic weather, and competition from much cheaper food sources.
“Well we don’t go hungry,” Stanton remarked in response to this question. “I don’t consider the much cheaper food as competition,” he continued. “It’s different food, that’s not food, in some cases. I consider the idea that we grow real food, really good, nutritionally dense, flavorful food, as the most important thing. If people want to eat the other stuff, then we need to educate them so they understand that they’re not actually eating food.”
The “other stuff” Stanton is referring to is the commercially produced food that comes from an industrial agricultural system driven by cheap fossil fuels.
“Petroleum still keeps the price of food and transportation relatively low to bring in food to our dear Berkshires in massive quantities throughout the year,” Dobson acknowledged.
“We say that the other food, the other ‘stuff’ is cheaper, but we’re not paying for all of the things that are happening in relation to how that type of food is produced,” Stanton added.
Stanton is the type of farmer who does it all. His operation involves milking cows, raising beef, raising pigs, raising meat chickens and laying hens, and growing tomatoes and other vegetables. While that is a lot of different things to be doing on one farm, he acknowledges that “that diversity is helpful” especially in the case of erratic weather challenges.
How else can small farmers build resilience in the face of climate change and the wacky weather patterns it produces? “There’s a simple answer to that and that is greenhouses,” said Dobson. “After the Hurricane last year I realized that more greenhouse space is the answer to very unpredictable weather patterns,” he said.
Dave Inglis is currently working on building a greenhouse on the new piece of land he purchased in Great Barrington. He first started getting involved in growing food in 1978, started training in 1982 and has been growing ever since. “The key to the development of a really sustainable, regional anything is to get a critical mass of people who want to be really, really good, if not the best, at what they do,” he said.
“It’s clear to me that there’s a lot of interest in growing the local organic agricultural sector, and in order to do that there needs to be more organizing and planning,” added Sarah Stranaham of Tyringham.
One step in that direction would be promoting this area as a culinary destination. Cardinali talked about the possibility of extending the Berkshire tourism season, for example late April through early December, and make the area known not only as a cultural destination but also as a culinary one. “There is so much more here than just culture,” she said.
Wendy Germain, a resident of Monterey who attended the panel, praised Berkshire Magazine for having an event like this that keeps the conversation going. The more that people will talk about this, the better off we’re going to be,” she said. “In so many ways the Berkshires have been on the cutting edge.”