Note from Barbara Zheutlin, executive director of Berkshire Grown: The Berkshires are much loved for the pastoral beauty of the region. This gorgeous landscape attracts visitors and development, producing a rich culture, while simultaneously raising the cost of land. The high cost of land is one of the many challenges facing farms, the farms that are at the heart of the beauty of the Berkshires. So a challenge to all who treasure the Berkshires is how to sustain the old and new farms of the region that make the Berkshires extraordinary. In this series you will “get to know your local farmers,” the individuals who grow the food you eat and care for the land you see.
New Lebanon, N.Y. — Tucked away at the top of a hill sits Climbing Tree Farm, owned by Schuyler and Colby Gail. A native of nearby Williamstown, Schuyler volunteered in high school and later apprenticed for Caretaker Farm. The Gails began farming Schuyler’s grandmother’s farm 25 miles away from Climbing Tree in Berlin 10 years ago. The property had not been farmed in decades. Tall grass had overtaken the area around the barns and was threatening to decay the structures, so the couple first added sheep to eat the grass. Chickens were the next addition but only for their eggs, since the Gails were vegetarians at the time. Not long after that, they welcomed their first child and decided to raise livestock so that healthy meat would be an option for their children. Now, as they are no longer vegetarians, it’s an option for everyone.
In 2011 Schuyler and Colby bought land in New Lebanon through the Columbia Land Conservancy’s Farmer/Landowner Match program to continue their farm. In addition to pigs, the farm now raises cows, sheep and chickens. The cows were welcomed onto the farm two years ago for pasture management and the sheep provide wool blankets to sell at winter farmers’ markets.
The Gails have high standards for their pigs and will only breed those which are well behaved. “Different pigs have different cultures. Some are really loud, which we no longer keep,” said Schuyler, recalling one group that routinely kept them up through the night with their noisiness. Climbing Tree’s civilized pig community is currently comprised of Large Black, Tamworth, and Red Wattle pigs. The Red Wattles can be distinguished from the other pigs, sporting pieces of skin hanging from each side of their necks, thought to have once been scent organs. Keeping pigs on the farm helps to regenerate the ground more quickly. “This is mob grazing,” said Schuyler, referring to a technique which refers to short-term, high-intensity grazing to improve the pasture.
Berkshire Grown was able to witness farm-to-table in action when chef Josh Coletto stopped by to procure a locally sourced boar shoulder for an upcoming pop-up dinner. A 14-year veteran of the culinary industry, Coletto is now a freelance chef and also works at the Darrow School, a nearby boarding school for grades 9 through 12. For Coletto, the reason he sources his pork from Climbing Tree is simple: “Because it’s the best meat around here,” he said, patiently withstanding pecks from chickens at his feet. Some of Climbing Tree’s sales come from its CSA and individuals like Josh, but most derive from wholesale sales to restaurants and butchers.
Climbing Tree also hosts an educational program with the Darrow School called Hands to Work. Through the service-learning program, groups of three to seven students are able to gain hands-on farming experience in the fall and spring each year. One student from China who was particularly impressed by Schuyler’s work on the farm told her, “Oh wow! You are stronger than most of the men in China!” Schuyler noted that she loves the diversity of the students in the learning programs, some of whom have had limited or no knowledge of raising livestock or the origins of their food. Climbing Tree is planning to host a similar service-learning program with other local high schools.
Farming at Climbing Tree is particularly labor-intensive given its hillside location, but there is a significant upside: the view. The farm looks out on a small lake, forests and the mountainous terrain of Massachusetts. In the future, the Gails hope to expand Climbing Tree’s footprint in order to increase the porcine population.
Interested in knowing more? Follow Climbing Tree Farm on Instagram.