Laura Meister, owner of Farm Girl Farm is beginning her 11th season as a farmer. She started out on Pumpkin Hollow Road in Egremont and farmed there for eight years before moving to the four acres she now farms at Equinox Farm in Sheffield.
Meister and Equinox Farm’s owner Ted Dobson share many customers. Dobson, who specializes in baby salad greens, is on the road in his van every day delivering. “It made sense for us to double up, particularly since I don’t grow baby greens like Ted does,” she says.
At Farm Girl Farm, Meister grows a wide spectrum of vegetables that can flourish in New England. Her specialty is tomatoes, particularly heirloom varieties, along with eggplant and peppers. She likes to find vegetables with different colors, shapes and sizes. “I enjoy that mix of things rather than just finding that one tomato that really works,” she says, noting that it is rare that anything is totally a failure. “That’s the point of diversity,” she reminds me.
There are many paths to becoming a farmer but Meister’s struck me as delightfully unusual – she majored in Art History at the University of Pennsylvania, and went on for a Masters degree in the same field at Tufts. While in Boston, she worked for the Curator of Photographs at the Museum of Fine Arts there. “I think my visual training is an advantage because part of what makes my farm so interesting are the colors, shapes, and textures of my produce.” And it’s one of the reasons she likes working closely with chefs who create food that is as visually appealing as it is delicious.
The now-defunct Visionary Institute in Sheffield is what attracted Meister to the Berkshires. She enrolled in their one-year Masters Degree in documentary film production that led her to making 2-minute films of local farmers in production, such as Sean Stanton and Dominic Palumbo slaughtering turkeys. Her final project was a short film to commemorate the Berkshire Coop’s move from Rossiter Avenue to their current location on Bridge Street. She and filmmaker Erica Spizz did short interviews with farmers who sold to the Coop, and that led her to becoming a farmer herself.
Today, Meister thoroughly enjoys working with about 40 chefs. She finds it inspiring to grow food that they want. “There’s creative synergy in working with the chefs. They’re artists when they can be,” she says.
Over the years, Meister has developed a close friendship with chef Daire Rooney of Allium, and works frequently with Dan Smith of John Andrews and Brian Alberg of The Red Lion Inn. All three chefs have cooked at the prestigious James Beard House in New York, where Meister joins them as they prepare dinner, including at least one dish that came from her farm. “I really like knowing that something I’ve grown has been served at that venerable institution.”
Winter lasted a long time this year, but when I interviewed Meister it was close to 90 degrees. Given the variability of local weather, what, I asked her, attracted her to farming, where the outside elements predominate. “I love the hands-on challenge of problem-solving, and love that the workplace is outside even when the weather is unattractive,” she says.
There are various ways farmers can earn money — selling at farmers markets, selling to buyers like restaurants, and making prepared food. One very popular method, actually developed in the Berkshires, is the CSA, or community supported agriculture. CSAs line up their customer base during the fallow season and then provide freshly grown food to their subscribers throughout the growing season. Meister has experimented with CSAs, and now maintains a very small one for about 15 families.
For her CSA members, she harvests on Tuesdays and then packs up their boxes for pick up in the next few days. It took her some years to arrive at a size and method that worked for her and her customers. “I had to learn about business, to figure out what a balance sheet was,” she says. She took a class that helped her compare selling to restaurants versus to CSA subscribers, and then found that she had to work harder for the CSA subscribers than for her restaurant customers.
“In general, CSAs are losing their appeal,” Meister notes, “particularly here in the Berkshires with so many other outlets such as Guido’s and the Coop.”
She says that people starting their own farms who have had farming experience are in better shape for the inevitable challenges than those who have been bitten by the farm romance bug. “You’ve got to do the math,” she says, “and that can be daunting. There’s so many variables.”
Meister is looking forward to selling at the popular Great Barrington Farmers Market. “It’s well-established and busy,” she notes. Being out in the community to sell at the market is a different experience, one where she can get feedback from many different types of customers.
Meister is a long-time board member of Berkshire Grown, the organization committed to helping local farmers. She praises Barbara Zheutlin, executive director of the organization, for the assistance given to farmers. “She’s got great connections,” Meister reports. And she appreciates the holiday farmers markets sponsored by the organization. “It’s very easy to measure my success at these markets,” she says.
Farm Girl Farm’s work force is a variable number. Now, at the beginning of the season, she has one helper, but at the peak of the season she will have a 4-person crew. Several of those who help her are considering taking up farming themselves; others just want the experience of working outside through the growing season. “A lot of them come back at least for pieces of the season, which is great because they’re already trained. A few spend their vacation working here, which is really touching.”
Before joining the Great Barrington Farmers Market, 90 percent of Meister’s business came from restaurants, caterers, Guido’s and the Coop. Her clientele is primarily in South County but on Thursdays she delivers in Williamstown and North Adams. She also provides vegetables to the White Hart Inn in Connecticut.
Meister will be selling seedlings over Memorial Day weekend at Equinox Farm. Seedlings are $2 for a single plant, or a 4-pack for $4 to $6.
It is customary for people to complain about the weather, but Meister explains that a hot, dry season is good for tomatoes and eggplants, but challenging for greens. The reverse is also true. “Something happens every year,” she says, “tomato blight, hurricanes, all those biblical plagues. Last year, though, was refreshingly unremarkable.” Who knows what atmospheric challenges will occur this year?