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Animal agriculture in winter: What farmers do when they’re not growing greens

“We don’t see as much agriculture here as you would in a different part of the country,” Sean Stanton explained; as a result, “you end up with people wondering why the cows are outside in the snow and not understanding how their systems work.”

Mill River — If you don’t know Anna Houston, chances are you know her chickens; or, at the very least, you’ve encountered her chickens’ eggs at one of the myriad local establishments that carries them. Houston and her partner, Rob Perazzo, are the humans behind Off the Shelf Farm on County Road in Mill River and their roughly 650 laying hens stay busy year-round despite the Berkshires’ wildly unpredictable winters. Visitors to the Great Barrington Farmers’ Market might know the pair for their nearly famous “all day egg sandwich” served up on Saturday mornings in summer; this weekend, they will be one of dozens of local vendors braving the elements to participate in the Berkshire Grown Winter Market Saturday, Feb. 16, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Monument Valley Regional Middle School in Great Barrington. And the egg sandwiches will be served en plein air.

The chickens of Off the Shelf Farm gather around the nesting box on a winter morning. Photo courtesy Off the Shelf Farm

“So we have a breed meant for production, [which means] with a little extra stimulation, they lay year-round,” said Houston of her flock of Red Stars. Perhaps you’ve seen the mobile chicken coop on County Road in Sheffield. Houston and Perazzo don’t own a farm, rather they lease about 100 acres in the greater New Marlborough area—and, come winter, their girls continue to yield between 500 and 600 eggs each day. Indoor digs for the cold months include a light that comes on in the morning to mimic the sunrise, and then the chickens “just do their thing,” said Houston, acknowledging that production goes down a little bit in winter, “but nothing too much.”

Anna Houston, Rob Perazzo and friends of Off the Shelf Farm. Photo courtesy off the Shelf Farm

At Off the Shelf Farm, winter means thinking outside the proverbial box; their eggs, sold by the dozen in an unmistakable bright pink carton, can be found from Guido’s Fresh Marketplace, the Berkshire Food Co-op and the Mill River Store to Rubi’s, the Prairie Whale and Gould Farm. “The list goes on and on,” said Houston, which, in some ways, matches her hens’ production. Houston and Perazzo were drawn to Red Stars, a good breed for pasturing. They are purchased at 17 weeks of age when they are ready to lay, thanks to being raised in an environment that primes them to go out on the land. Conventional hens, on the other hand, are raised in a barn and unaccustomed to light. At the crux of the pair’s commitment to pasture-based farming is some sort of coop that is moveable: This allows the hens rotating access to fresh grass and helps to naturally move the fertilizer around. Come winter, the flock is moved indoors for the harshest part of the season with little if any drop in production. When compared with lots of heritage breeds—that lay what Houston calls “more beautiful, colored eggs”—these farmers are chasing a more tangible goal: an egg a day.

Tess Diamond and Sean Stanton of North Plain Farm and Blue Hill Farm. Photo courtesy North Plain Farm

Both Houston and Perazzo, who have been farming in the Berkshires for several years, apprenticed with Sean Stanton at North Plain Farm. Stanton, who, along with Tess Diamond, also manages Blue Hill Farm, spends the winter tending to the animals. “Weather creates a lot of different challenges,” said Stanton, citing frozen water, getting diesel tractors to run in frigid temperatures, and getting hay to the cows as being part of a day’s work this time of the year. “It’s one of the most challenging, but also the slowest in a way,” Stanton explained. Some days he is contemplating how much money to spend in order to keep the livestock’s water from freezing versus breaking up the ice multiple times each day; other days, he is working hard to smooth inquiries as to whether or not his cows are being treated well.

“We don’t see as much agriculture here as you would in a different part of the country,” he explained; as a result, “you end up with people wondering why the cows are outside in the snow and not understanding how their systems work.” Stanton explained that cows create a tremendous amount of heat due to the fact that their digestive systems function like a compost heap: Like any decomposition system, it creates heat. “It’s like an internal combustion system, creating warmth from inside,” Stanton said. At present, he and Diamond have 100 cows, 60 pigs and about 500 laying hens, and they all have some form of shelter, “a wind break at the bare minimum,” but Stanton is emphatic about one thing: The rain and snow are really non-issues. “If you look at cows in snow, they have snow on their fur. It does not melt. When it builds up on their fur, it can create a layer of insulation [which] melts only at a certain temperature,” he explained. In the past they have gotten calls from concerned citizens, to which Diamond has a short but sweet answer: “Cows are not dogs!” The common misconception is that farm animals are being mistreated if left out in the cold—not so. “The bodies of pets are equipped for completely different conditions [than cows]. If ruminants are given hay to break down, they generate their own heat and stay warm. It’s amazing, actually,” Diamond added.

Stanton is often frustrated by the inherent disconnect: Individuals who have no connection to where their food comes from and how the food they are eating is being raised are often the first to raise the alarm bell. “That is the most frustrating part,” said Stanton. “If they did know where their food came from and the conditions [under which it was raised], they might find it more humane [to see cows braving the Berkshire winter].”

Margaret Moulton. Photo: Alison Sheehy

Margaret Moulton, executive director at Berkshire Grown, is quick to acknowledge that, in the Northeast, winter is a time that many farmers take a break from growing to do more mundane tasks like business planning and equipment fixes. In keeping with Berkshire Grown’s motto—to keep farmers farming—Moulton has worked to extend the selling season for farmers. “This year we’ve added two winter farmers markets [March 16 and April 20], making it possible for farmers to sell directly to consumers all year long,” she explained. “Winter markets offer a double whammy,” Moulton said. “Buying fresh, local food and seeing farmers and friends year-round. It’s great to see our local farmers every week at the summer markets—it is an extra-sweet connection to the land and to our community to be able to check in with our farmers during the winter months and support all the work they do to grow our food.”

If you plan to attend any of the winter markets, don’t forget to swing through the parking lot at the rear of the school: There you will find Stanton at the wood-fired grill, enticing passersby with sausage sandwiches as well as pork, beef and eggs to take home. As for Houston and Perazzo, they will be close by making egg sandwiches—you guessed it—all day. They use local produce to make their onion jam, Cabot cheddar from various local distributors, their own eggs are at the base of the homemade aioli, and the pair is in conversation with local bakers to make a brioche bun. Jacuterie, from Ancramdale, New York, provides the bacon. “We try and make it easy for ourselves,” joked Houston. “You like the greens—likely a spicy arugula or mustard mix—you can find them two stalls down!”

Berkshire Grown supports and promotes local agriculture as a vital part of the Berkshire community, economy and landscape.


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