Harvest Season in the Berkshires: Part II

Changing family traditions at Ioka Valley Farm

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Editor's note: This is part two of a four-part series exploring the harvest season in the Berkshires, looking at Berkshire County farm operations that embody the past, present and future of local food production in these hills.

Read Part 1: Berkshire farming's bones and blood: The dairy farm  here


HANCOCK — On a damp Saturday morning, 3-year-old Henry Coughlin engaged in an old Berkshires custom. He sat on a stool in a sawdust-lined stall and milked the four full teats in front of him.     

Coughlin, who traveled from New York City to visit his grandparents in Williamstown, diligently filled a blue bucket as his family watched on from the aisles in Ioka Valley Farm's dairy barn. Asked if this was the first time he had milked a cow, Coughlin said yes — and no.

"This isn't a real cow," he pointed out. He pulled on a rubber teat hanging down from the white-and-black painted wooden body and added, "It just has water coming out!"

The wooden, water-filled imitations are the only dairy cows left at the Hancock farm. Owners Don and Judy Leab sold their herd of about 220 cattle in 1996, ending a six-decade-long family tradition. It started with Don's parents, Robert and Dorothy, driving 13 cattle and a wagon over Brodie Mountain from Lanesborough to Hancock.

"It was a sad day — a very sad day," Judy said. "It's like selling your family. Don knew all of them individually. They just become part of you."

But economic necessity forced the Leabs to make this heart-rending decision, just as it did other farms in the Berkshires' shrinking dairy community. At the time, Judy said, "the price of milk was really, really bad," and the option for staying in business — expansion — looked unlikely in their geographically narrow valley.

Fortunately, selling the herd came with one big tradeoff. In exchange for the bovine family they lost, the Leabs gained back biological kin: their grown son Rob, whose family would become the farm's next generation.

He returned on the condition that he didn't have to milk cows. His passion was maple syrup, and in order to make that a viable business, Ioka Valley Farm began offering recreational farm activities as a marketing tool.

FROM DAIRY TO DIVERSIFIED

Tromping through thigh-high snow some winters and boot-sucking mud every spring, Rob Leab now maintains 18,000 taps for Ioka Valley Farm's maple operation.

When he's not in the woods or the sugarhouse, Rob joins his wife, Melissa, their teenage kids, Martha and Josh, his parents, Don and Judy, and several employees in running a highly diversified farm.

This past weekend, that farm was in full fall mode.

People braved the rain and wandered through a pumpkin patch sandwiched by a cornfield and Route 43. If they didn't want to harvest their own autumn decorations, they could choose from piles of already-harvested gourds, Indian corn and dried corn stalks.

Others visited the pigs, fed the goats and pumped water the old fashioned-way to race rubber ducks down metal chutes. Inside the dairy barn, kids played in a hay tunnel. A birthday party group gathered around cow-print tables in the "Calf-A," a caf in the former old calf barn.

And then there was Terri Koepp: a small, white-haired, pumpkin-sweatshirt-clad woman who is the farm's maple mistress, the syrup seller, the sugarhouse entertainer extraordinaire.

She enchanted a visiting Israeli family vacationing in Lenox and gave them samples, grand hand gestures and, as she held up a white bag full of cider donuts, a convincing slurp of her tongue.

Holding up a bin full of maple-enhanced nut mixes, she insisted, "You have to trust me that it's delicious."

They did, purchasing a healthy number of products after her pitch.

MAINTAINING LAND CONNECTION

Sales are the practical goal for Ioka Valley Farm. But the Leabs have deeper desires than that.

Judy Leab has long brought school groups in for demonstrations, and everywhere on the farm are signs, posters and demonstrations (like the milkable wooden cow) meant to educate people about where food comes from before it hits supermarket shelves.

When the first non-school groups started coming to the farm, Judy said people balked at being charged. Now, though, their agritourism activities are at the heart of local family traditions.

Marie Slattery of Hoosick, N.Y., and her son, Malachy, of Pittsfield, for example, walked into the Leabs' barn last Saturday for their annual autumn ritual. They eat lunch in the Calf-A, and, if it's nice out, they go on a hay ride.

The national agricultural census shows agritourism growing across the region. There were no recorded farms in Berkshire County generating agritourism income in 1997, but by 2007, there were 11. In the 2012 census, that number increased to 24 — an 118 percent jump.

"There's enough people that are so far removed from agriculture, now this is that one opportunity to have a connection with the farmer, with the land," Judy said.

The Leabs want to maintain their own family connection to the land by keeping their fields planted with pumpkins, squash, corn and hay. To avoid a future sale and development, Judy and Don are slowly turning over ownership of Ioka Valley Farm to their son Rob and his wife Melissa. In another generation, the younger couple is hopeful their children will continue their stewardship.

"I think we just need to keep our eyes open," Melissa said, "and be willing to change."


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