"Food, Farming and our Future": Sowing seeds of success

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You might not think acclaimed chef Dan Barber and distinguished economist Paul Krugman have much in common — but as it turns out, they do.

And they'll have plenty of time to go over it all during an Aug. 27 fundraiser event, catered by The Old Inn on the Green and the Southfield Store. Located in a barn in a private home in Sheffield, Barber and Krugman will speak on themes of "Food, Farming and our Future."

Money raised will help support farmers in the region; the event is co-sponsored by Berkshire Grown, Berkshire Agricultural Ventures and several generous Berkshire community members.

Guests will eat a gorgeous brunch devised by chef Peter Platt, and take home a copy of the book "Letters to a Young Farmer: On Food, Farming and our Future," which inspired this event.

Berkshire Grown Executive Director Barbara Zheutlin said she's been dreaming of building an event around the book for quite some time, and saw a connection via its creator, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. Barber, who also contributed to the book, is chef and co-owner of the NYC restaurant Blue Hill, and its rural partner, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, located at the Stone Barns Center in Pocantico Hills, N.Y.

Berkshire Grown hosted Barber in conversation with author Elizabeth Kolbert at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington in 2014, when his best-selling book "The Third Plate" was released. It was a packed house.

"Very exciting for me was that Dan Barber took time to research agriculture in the Berkshires, and he talked about that," Zheutlin said. "It was fascinating."

So how did Krugman get into the mix?

"I had seen Paul Krugman talk as part of a podcast; he was part of a New York Times conference at Stone Barns," she said. " He talked about food, which was unusual."

A solid network of local food supporters helped Zheutlin connect with the New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winner, and a date was set.

"I'm inspired by each of them, and didn't expect those worlds to overlap," she said. "Here was this opportunity to inspire the community. ... I love to put thoughtful, provocative people who care a great deal about our world together."

Money raised will help Berkshire Grown and Berkshire Agricultural Ventures with direct support for local farmers. Berkshire Agricultural Ventures, which recently incorporated as its own nonprofit organization, helps with connections and financing. Over the past year, BAV has provided technical assistance in the form of business planning, marketing assistance and grant writing, valued at about $95,000, to 13 farms and food businesses, and nearly $150,000 in financing to two farms and food businesses for startup capital, equity investment and purchasing land.

Executive Director Cynthia Pansing said BAV's work to connect small farmers with local investors has been crucial for farms and food producers looking to take a big next step. "We're essentially trying to rebuild infrastructure anew that is really needed to knit together the food system in the region," she said.

"The farms and food businesses largely in Berkshire County are classified as small businesses," Pansing said. "They are stretched thin, and they don't always have resources at their disposal to move on to the next stage. That's what we aim to do through BAV."

Berkshire Grown has worked for many years to strengthen local agriculture, including workshops for farmers, held during the winter. Providing networking opportunities, plus new ideas and resources, is helpful for a small community of people whose work does not end during the growing season.

"We have been working on developing a network between farmers and food producers and buyers, which includes restaurants and retailers, for close to 20 years," Zheutlin said.

Public outreach — like inviting the public to these sorts of events, or the nonprofit's annual harvest dinner in September — is important, too.

"What we do that's so exciting is connect the community, all of us who eat, with those who grow our food," Zheutlin said. "It's super important that people understand where our food comes from, and that's why it's so important to understand farming and farmers."


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