SHEFFIELD -- You may very well have had lettuce or mesclun greens from Equinox Farm. The farm, run by Ted Dobson for the last 30 years, supplies 80 restaurants -- 25 in Manhattan, 30 to 40 in Boston and 30 to 40 in Berkshire County.
Dobson, in his 50s now and also a Sheffield Selectman, has always been a farmer. Originally from New Jersey, he started farming in 1983 after attending UC Santa Cruz and studying intensive biodynamic techniques.
He and his then-wife first worked at a large organic farm in Mendocino, but "we decided we didn't want to settle in California. We were starting to feel very much like displaced East Coasters," he said.
Dobson's family had a farmhouse in Hillsdale, N.Y. with some land, so they started the farm there. This is his 12th season in Sheffield.
"It really was a divine time to start a small organic farm," he said.
That was a dark time in American food culture -- lots of prewrapped stuff, lots of bulk-order restaurant food; "the height of iceberg lettuce," Dobson said.
He started supplying a handful of restaurants, like The Old Mill in Sheffield and The Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, with chefs who, he says, understood the idea that local greens were fresher and better.
"There were chefs in the ‘80s here in South County that really were instrumental in creating this farm-to-table movement," Dobson said. "It makes me happy to look around and see what's happened in 30 years."
Then, Dobson remembered, there were mostly dairy operations in the Berkshires; now, of course, the Berkshires and the Hudson Valley have taken a sharp move toward eating local and buying products that are produced in smaller quantity.
The farm is not organic -- Dobson described himself as a "biological farmer": "We're embracing all technology that works, excepting the use of petrochemicals and genetically altered crops," he said.
The greens at Equinox are produced year-round, and an average day entails between 200 and 300 cases of lettuce and mesclun mixes. It's generally a 12-hour day, with a lot of deliveries (Guido's Fresh Marketplace, which sells Equinox Lettuce, takes his products to Boston).
New lettuce is planted every five days, and it's harvested when it's young and crisp, around 1 1 2 to 2 inches long.
Growing all year doesn't really insulate Equinox Farm from losing money.
"It's unpredictable from one year to the next," Dobson said. "We started this summer with 22 inches of rain. Half my crop was wiped out you need a decent growing season to make a living, or you're really up shit's creek."
Dobson likened farming to a yoke, which keeps him moving along, and keeps him from pulling away. When I asked him if he ever fantasizes about doing something else with his life, especially when a season is bad, he said yes, "but you wouldn't be a farmer if you didn't have passion and a certain rare form of insanity."
Equinox has five people working it; Farm Girl Farm, which was the subject of a prior column, is a separate entity that operates on three acres of Dobson's land and employs around four people. Dobson has employed hundreds of people over the years, some who have started their own farms, like Chris Regan of Sky Farm in Millerton, N.Y., whose greens have sold very, very successfully.
"I feel like I have an all-star cast this season," Dobson said. He's got an old friend he worked with at Santa Cruz working there, and an old friend who ran the Mahaiwe CSA for 18 years, too. So there's plenty of expertise going into the land, and plenty of support for the farm-to-table movement.
Dobson said in the future, he sees himself getting more involved in that movement, and he sees it growing. "There's so many opportunities in the field of local and regional organics," he said. "I see this movement having a lot of opportunities -- I can see myself being involved very much involved."
And the availability of local foods, the viability of small farms, he said he thinks will expand. The farm-to-table movement is viewed by many as too expensive, or not accessible enough for all people. That is debatable, but Dobson said he sees a future where it's easy to eat local. "You're going to see the beginning of food being grown, not just for the cultural elite but for everybody."
you go ...
What: Equinox Farm
Where: 237 Bow Wow Road, Sheffield
When: Equinox does not do farmers markets, only wholesale. Get Equinox Farm greens at Guido's Fresh Marketplace, Price Chopper and the Berkshire Co-op Market.
Information: (413) 229-2266