Agricultural Adventures: Sean Stanton — farmer, selectman, fatherMore Info
Great Barrington — You can see him grilling his sausages at the Great Barrington Farmers Market each Saturday morning. And you can see him in grown-up clothes at Great Barrington Select Board meetings. And you can see him cradling an infant…but not when he’s grilling. That’s Sean Stanton: farmer, chair of the Great Barrington Select Board, and, most recently, father of little Lola.
Stanton’s farming career began in 2001 after his four-year service in the Coast Guard. While in the Coast Guard, he served on 378-foot long cutters at Governor’s Island, Charleston, S.C., and Seattle.
When Stanton returned to Great Barrington after his military service, he attended Berkshire Community College for a year, and began raising animals. “I wouldn’t call what I did then farming, but I did raise chickens and pigs.” He kept the animals on his parents’ property on North Plain Road.
Today, Stanton still uses that family property, but he also farms on twelve different properties owned by others. “On some I just cut hay, on others I graze my animals, and on still others I grow crops.”
Currently, Stanton has five people working on his farm properties, a figure that goes down to two or three in winter. He provides food, housing, and a stipend to his farm workers, typically people in their 20’s or early 30’s. Some stay for a whole season, some for several seasons, and there’s one who has been working for him for eight years.
Stanton uses several websites to find people to work on his farm properties. He has had good luck advertising with Good Food Jobs and Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA). Some of the people he hires through these organizations have farm experience, but many do not. Right now, his farm staff includes a Yale graduate, a Williams graduate, and a Fordham graduate. “It’s interesting to have people from very different backgrounds working and living together. It can be great…or it can be very challenging.” He tries to avoid hiring those without any farming experience, “but that really depends on the individual. I’m getting better at understanding what people need.”
When Stanton started out he gave free range to his employees, hoping for them to experience farming on their own. More recently, though, he is tightening up the rules to give his new farmers more focus. “It’s not beneficial to them or me if the range is too free.”
Over the years, a number of Stanton’s “students” have graduated to their own farms — in Vermont, the Pioneer Valley, the Hudson Valley, and in Maine. “Most of them gone on to farm in some way,” he says.
Stanton has been able to expand his farm operation considerably because of his fortuitous relationship with Dan Barber of Blue Hill Restaurant fame. Barber’s family has had a presence in the Berkshires for several generations, and in the early 2000’s Matt Rubiner, owner of his eponymous cheese emporium on Main Street, told Barber about Stanton’s farming ambitions.
Stanton was well aware of the Barber farmland on the Monterey/Great Barrington line, having lusted for the big open but unused fields there. The relationship between Stanton and Barber has developed into a solid working relationship with the growing Barber food empire. Stanton now sells them pigs, goats, veal, beef, milk, tomatoes, and other farm products.
But Stanton is not just a successful farmer. In 2004 he ran for the Great Barrington Planning board on which he served for four years, after which he ran for the Select Board. Stanton credits his interest in serving on town boards to the model set by his parents, who have always taken into their home people who need help in various ways. “They installed a sense of service in me,” he says. His brother, Peter, was recently elected to the Great Barrington Board of Health, and is running the home care business begun by his parents.
Stanton has been selling at the Great Barrington Farmers Market for ten years, and thinks the new location is “brilliant,” a view widely shared by other vendors. He has 800 laying hens that produce the eggs he sells at the farmers market and at the Coop. He estimates that about one-quarter of his sales are at the farmers market, and another quarter sold at the farm.
Stanton’s meat is slaughtered at Eagle Bridge Custom Meats in Eagle Bridge, N.Y. He goes there once a week although “there are maybe 10 weeks when we don’t go there.” All of his products are available for purchase at the farm on Route 41, where a money box is available in the kitchen.
When you shop at Stanton’s stall at the Great Barrington Farmers Market, you can see his new daughter, Lola, with her mother, Tess Diamond. Prior to becoming a mother, Diamond was managing a farm in Greene County, New York.
Stanton is proud that Great Barrington is so supportive of farmers in general. “We’ve never turned down a 61A application.” He notes that Jennifer Tabakin, the town manager, worked hard to keep the farmers market downtown.
As of now, the only land Stanton owns is his home. He has word-of-mouth agreements on all the properties on which he farms. “We need to have more concrete contracts with landowners,” he says, because “they could say no anytime.”
The landowners from whom he rents profit from tax provisions for farming, but they can withdraw from their arrangements at any time. Luckily for farmers, Massachusetts is very supportive of its APR (Agricultural Preservation Restriction) program. This program pays landowners to keep agricultural lands in production, thus keeping open farmland that might otherwise be developed.
In the fourteen years that Stanton has been farming, he has seen an enormous growth in awareness of the importance of local farmland. “There is a huge demand for local produce,” he says, “which you can see when you shop at Guido’s or the Co-op.”
There is a long and honorable tradition in America of farmers doubling as statesmen. Think Thomas Jefferson, not a bad model for aspirations.