Great Barrington — The rhythms of the natural world have been particularly alluring to me since hunkering in at home this spring. More than once over the past 90 days, I’ve imagined the comfort to be found in farming: not so much the rising before dawn, but the waking each day knowing the dewy fields held the promise of work — dare I say distraction — with the knowledge of a tremendous reward come June. Since COVID-19 arrived and irrevocably changed the surrounding Berkshires landscape for so many, Berkshire Grown has evolved at a quick clip. In particular, the local nonprofit, the mission of which is to keep farmers farming, has transformed its in-person workshops and farmer-to-farmer networking events into a series of evening web chats and podcasts for farmers, who are hopefully not too exhausted by day’s end to utilize them.
“We have created an emergency response technical assistance team — and built a Shop Local Now page on our website — all to help our Berkshire farmers stay in the game through this COVID craziness,” executive director Margaret Moulton told The Edge in a recent phone interview. These educational initiatives, aimed at providing farmer support, were created in what Moulton called “the blink of an eye” to both complement and augment the organization’s commitment to food access work in the community. These resources, aimed specifically at farmers, can be found on the Berkshire Grown website under Resources for Farmers. What began as a series of Thursday evening chats — with topics ranging from Farm Employee Training/Management to Marketing Technical Assistance During COVID-19 — has evolved once again to accommodate the growing season and fewer farmers logging on due to simple logistics: “They are still in the fields, or exhausted,” said Moulton.
Over the past two weeks, a series of podcasts have taken shape with hope of engaging those tasked with raising our food. Connection remains at the heart of these efforts, but with a twist: “The idea was to [retain] the opportunity for peers to learn from one another, that would still allow for that sharing of expertise between farmers [in a format that farmers] could listen to whenever they want,” said Andrea Caluori, Berkshire Grown’s program manager. The podcasts “drop” weekly on Thursday at 6 p.m. (in a nod to previous seasons’ in-person networking events), and the “experts” come from across the region, not just Berkshire County. The inaugural podcast from May 28 features Lee Hennessey of Moxie Ridge Farm & Creamery in Argyle, New York. Moxie Ridge Farm & Creamery is a small, diversified farm on 46 acres with a commitment to heritage and traditional foods. The farm offers terroir-driven goat cheeses, whey-fed pork and milk-finished chicken. In this podcast, Lee talks about his experiences in grant writing to support the farm’s operations, marketing successes, and the launch of Moxie Box in response to the pandemic crisis.
Episode 2, from June 4, features Abby Ferla of Foxtrot Farm in Ashfield. Foxtrot Farm is a certified organic 2-acre farm in the hilltowns of western Massachusetts with a focus on growing foods that walk the line between medicine and food. Foxtrot Farm implements no-till farming systems and avoids the use of fossil fuels. In this conversation, Abby talks about the launch of the new Resilient & Healing Foods CSA program, food justice and activist farming perspective, and the importance of Instagram as a marketing tool for the farm. Episode 3, on June 11, will feature Brian Cole, who started Bigfoot Farm in 2018 on a single acre in the foothills of the Taconic Mountains in Williamstown. A quick glimpse at Cole’s website (bigfootlikesfarming.com) reveals his approach to working the land: “I never use herbicides or pesticides, and I strive to make my growing practices as clean and eco-conscious as possible. I do most of the labor by hand, without the use of a tractor.”
“This program is evergreen,” said Caluori of the short, 30- to 35-minute segments focused on skill sharing (in particular the different ways farmers are farming and getting their products to market) that can be listened to anytime, anywhere, which, with extended daylight hours, might be happening “out in the fields or in the dairy parlor,” Caluori added. The podcasts are a part of Berkshire Grown’s Technical Assistance program to connect farmers with other farmers in order to learn from each other. Interviews let farmers share their own experiences out in the field, in the barn and marketing their farms’ products. “The fundamental takeaway is lots of storytelling and sharing,” said Caluori. “I’m interviewing farmers with the idea that other farmers are listening; that said, the general public could still find them interesting [which makes the endeavor a] win-win,” she added.
All of these efforts are to replace “those kinds of things we can’t do in person,” said Moulton. For the past few years, in-person networking events — free for farmers (and underwritten by a slew of sources) — revolved around themed visits to area farms. “I think it’s an answer!” said Moulton of the podcasts, particularly when “time is of the essence,” which, during a scant 150-day growing season between last and first frost, it most certainly is.
NOTE: Berkshire Grown is the “go to” network linking farmers and the Berkshire community. Through events, workshops, promotions, advocacy and education highlighting locally grown and produced food, Berkshire Grown helps to create a thriving local food economy. Berkshire Grown is proud to be part of the Massachusetts Coalition for Local Food and Farms, working in all regions of Massachusetts to strengthen local agriculture and increase the amount of local food eaten by Massachusetts residents.