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Hannah Van Sickle
Bill Turner of Turner Farms in South Egremont (left) chats with John Lebeaux, commissioner of agriculture for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, during a July 18 farm tour in South County.

Berkshire Grown farm tour shows collaboration among area farmers is alive and well

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By Thursday, Jul 19, 2018 Farm and Table

South Egremont — The simple fact that Bill and Paul Turner of Turner Farms provide hay to Will Conklin of Sky View Farm and manure to Elizabeth Keen of Indian Line Farm is enough to prove that collaboration among farmers in the area is alive and well. That said, on Wednesday, July 18, Berkshire Grown played host to John Lebeaux, the Commissioner of Agriculture for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, who was introduced to four distinctly different farms in South County for the purpose of exploring how farmers collaborate to sustain farming in the Berkshires.

“Our day is about collaborating — in particular the collaboration of farmers,” said Barbara Zheutlin, executive director of Berkshire Grown, to an impressive group of participants who gathered at Sky View Farm in Sheffield to kick off the day-long farm tour. Conklin and his wife, Amelia, raise grass-fed cattle, pigs and chickens and offer a year-round meat CSA that has grown to feed about 45 local families. Conklin, who is also the head of Greenagers — a local nonprofit providing outdoor jobs for Berkshire youth in farming, agriculture and conservation — had a particularly youthful entourage on hand for the commissioner’s visit. As luck would have it, his remarks were apropos.

Barbara Zheutlin of Berkshire Grown and Will Conklin of Sky View Farm listen intently to the conversation about importance of collaboration among farmers in Berkshire County. Photo: Hannah Van Sickle

“The average age of farmers, throughout the country and in Massachusetts, is 59. We’d like to lower that significantly,” said Lebeaux in his remarks aimed at thanking the Conklins for leading the day’s inaugural farm tour. His comments were not lost on Emma Grant, 19, of South Egremont who is currently apprenticing with Greenagers. As to this young person’s take on farming? “The hard work is always worth it,” said Grant who, among other responsibilities, works at the Sheffield Farmers’ Market on Friday afternoons and was instrumental in the installation of eight raised garden beds at French Park last month. Grant is headed to Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont, where, if her plan pans out, she hopes to pursue a career geared toward sustainability and agriculture.

“We can’t steward the land, and provide food for our neighbors and community, without it being a viable business,” said Will Conklin of the myriad challenges associated with farming, many of which are not connected to the fields or the farm animals. “We think of farming as this romantic adventure,” added Zheutlin, “but the farm needs to work as a business so the farming can continue,” she added. And that’s where the collaboration comes in. “We’re thrilled to host the commissioner in the Berkshires and excited to show him the diverse group of farms, and highlight how farms and farmers collaborate with each other to sustain farming in the Berkshires,” said Zheutlin.

Left to right: Darrell Turner, Sue Turner, Bill Turner, John Lebeaux, Paul Turner, Carla Turner and Barbara Zheutlin listen to the commissioner’s remarks about the Turner family’s dedication to collaboration. Photo: Hannah Van Sickle

“We’re showing the commissioner the diversity of farms in the Berkshires,” said Zheutlin after the group drove, caravan-style, to Turner Farms in South Egremont. Spanning 700 acres and four generations, the second stop on the tour was clearly “a totally different farm,” to use Zheutlin’s words. Brothers Bill and Paul Turner, along with Bill’s son, Darrell, are at the helm of a family farm that boasts diversity: They crop corn and soybeans, as evidenced by the twin grain bins boasting a combined capacity of 10,000 bushels; they ship about 9,000 pounds of milk a day from their 135 milking cows; and the maple sugaring operation, now in its 34th season, yields about 1,000 gallons of syrup gleaned from 3,500 taps.

“It’s been an interesting run,” said Bill Turner, who will turn 67 in the fall. “This is all I’ve ever done,” he added, looking across a verdant landscape punctuated by the house where his great-grandfather was born. The Turner family can attest to the full-day, all-day nature of farming. They also enjoy the benefits of collaboration, both within the family where “we all split our roles,” according to Darrell Turner, as well as with other farmers. In addition to the sale of products like hay and manure to area farmers, the size of their farm has meant having to invest in heavy-duty equipment that has “changed the way we do business, how we crop, how the whole system works,” said Bill Turner. Our tour began in the mechanical barn, a sleek red structure housing a combine harvester, a corn chopper, a giant mower and a skid loader. On a farm that has had to grow in land and equipment — the water supply in Egremont does not support the Turners adding more animals — the family has been able to spread their capital investment out, and share the proverbial wealth, by renting out equipment by the day or hour to farmers who could use the help but are not in a position to make the investment in equipment.

Carla Turner adjusts the feeding tanks for young calves. Photo: Jamie Paxton

“We’re fortunate that the state is very good with grants,” said Carla Turner, who is responsible for procuring grants for the family farm. Case in point: State funding allowed for the Turners to replace a dilapidated 1920s barn with a dual purpose barn that houses hay (1,500 big bales this season) in the summer, and functions as a maternity barn for calves in winter. This grant allowed the Turners to completely change how they raised calves, many of which were succumbing to upper respiratory issues in the previous structure. On a fascinating and thorough tour of the maternity barn, where nearly 120 additional animals were in various stages of development that eclipsed them from being active milkers, Sue Turner explained how times have changed. Historically, dairy farmers would “pop calves” in the spring and early summer, when milking by hand, for the sake of practicality. “Now, farmers breed all year, which equalizes the milk market and makes it easier for everyone,” Sue explained.

The working herd of Jersey cows at Morven Allen’s organic dairy farm, Balsam Hill, in Sheffield, Massachusetts. Photo: Jamie Paxton

“It’s fascinating to see the levels of collaboration,” said Lebeaux outside the Turners’ sugar shack. “The way you’ve integrated and come together to make it work [as a family] … is beautiful,” he added. The farm tour continued at Indian Line Farm in South Egremont where Elizabeth Keen, now at the helm of what was the first CSA in the country, provided lunch. The day concluded at Balsam Hill Farm, an organic dairy in Sheffield, where farmer Morven Allen and his 500 milking cows make Balsam Hill one of the largest certified organic dairy farms in Massachusetts.

For more information, and to meet some of the farmers highlighted in this story, visit https://berkshiregrown.org.


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