The future of Berkshire County agriculture primarily depends on a healthy mix of large and small farms likely needing more land and food processing facilities to meet the growing demand for locally produced foods.
Following three years of research, Keep Berkshires Farming plans to discuss its key findings and recommended strategies expected to help farmers increase production and their customer base. The community-based volunteer group has scheduled public forums starting Thursday in Great Barrington, followed by North Adams Nov. 7 and Lenox Nov. 14; all are from 7 to 8:30 p.m.
"We have to help create a strong regional food system that feeds everyone, and for that we need to increase supply," noted Sarah Gardner of the Williamstown Agricultural Commission.
Gardner is among the Keep Berkshires Farming advocates, assisted by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, that has been gathering information on countywide farms and surveying restaurants, food retailers and residents, along with farmers, in hopes of improving the farm-to-market pipeline.
BRPC senior planner Amy Kacala says the fact-finding mission also included farmers dinners that provided a rare opportunity for local growers and food producers to exchange helpful ideas.
"The value of informal networking -- more talking and the sharing of information -- is tough to do when you're working the farm all day," she said.
According to Keep Berkshires Farming, local agriculture ranges from traditional large-scale dairy farms and orchards to smaller, so-called "boutique" farms, specializing in food for high-end restaurants or farmers markets. While specialty farming is all the rage, Gardner cited the need to support the entire agriculture industry, including the remaining few local dairy farms.
"Despite the slight increase due to niche farms, most are with less than $5,000 annual sales -- not enough to support their families," she said. "Whereas each dairy cow puts $13,000 into the economy, making dairy still vital to local agriculture."
Keep Berkshires Farming also found that many farmers could increase the local food supply if they had access to unused, usually unmaintained open space. The potential farmland could be leased to the farmers to expand crop production or grazing of animals raised for meat.
However, beefing up the supply of locally grown food will require additional places to process and package the food for retail or wholesale, according to Kathy Orlando of the Berkshire Farm Bureau.
"The problem is there isn't many of them in the state," she said. "Right now, there is a six-to-eight-month waiting period to bring animals to slaughter."
Orlando, also a member of the Sheffield Agriculture Commission, sees the need for more affordable housing as a key to keep the Berkshires farming.
"You can't farm without people to work the land and the housing has to be nearby," she noted.
To reach Dick Lindsay:
or (413) 496-6233
If you go ...
Keep Berkshires Farming will hold three public forums to discuss ways to strengthen local agriculture and the regional food system. All meetings will be held from 7 to 8:30 pm.
n Thursday, First Congregational Church, 251 Main St., Great Barrington
n Nov. 7, All Saints Episcopal Church, 59 Summer St., North Adams
n Nov. 14, Trinity Episcopal Church Parish Hall, 88 Walker St., Lenox