HARVEST SEASON IN THE BERKSHIRES: PART IV

Providing meat for local families

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Editor's note: This is final part 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.

She had a cow. He had some land.

Amelia and Will Conklin's love story began when both Sheffield natives finished up their college studies and left behind traveling to return to their roots. Will inherited his great-grandfather's land, formerly used as summer dairy pastures, at Sky View Farm, and he set to work returning them to productivity. Amelia, who was in the Peace Corps, decided to leave a rural village in Paraguay to raise cows in her own rural hometown in the Berkshires.

At first, Amelia leased land from a dairy in Sheffield — her grandparents' dairies had since shut down. But then she heard about Will's pastures, and in the spring of 2012, she inquired. It only took until the fall before they committed to farming and sharing a life together.

"I moved in with my cow, and that was that," Amelia said.

The pair knew immediately that they had an affinity for raising meat and milk, and definitely not the vegetables most other Community Supported Agriculture operations grew.

"We both just have zero interest in the fascinating details surrounding growing lettuce," Amelia said.

They began production right off, and in 2014, Will and Amelia got married and opened their year-round meat CSA with 12 shareholders. Three years later, 45 local families regularly come by the couple's barn and choose from a freezer full of beef, pork, chicken, lamb, goat and rabbit.

Amelia said their selection has grown — they trade or sometimes buy the lamb and goat meat — and Sky View Farm is currently building a small, certified dairy where they hope to have a license for selling raw milk. Heading into their sixth season of production, the Conklins hope their business will, for the first time, break even. For now, they run a lumber business and operate a portable sawmill to support the farm.

"We haven't turned a profit yet," Amelia said.

But Sky View Farm has a lot of people rooting for its success. From the cooperative shareholders who showed up without any advertising or website to a region strategizing how to strengthen its local food economy, the young couple has found a promising niche for local meat.

"The demand seems high," Amelia said.

A needed niche

Beef and pork are among the food products with the least regional supply and the most local demand according to the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission's 2014 "Sustainable Berkshires" report. As far as Berkshire Grown executive director Barbara Zheutlin is concerned, every food sector could use more local producers in this region.

"One of our goals is to increase the amount of locally produced food that everyone is choosing to eat," Zheutlin said. "It's really important people start thinking about farms and foods as the same thing. The idea is we can get younger farmers and ... that is creating a way to feed ourselves in the future."

Since Zheutlin took up her post in 2007, she has witnessed a wave of interest in local food and a simultaneous loss of the agricultural giants — dairy farms — in the county. National agriculture censuses show that more farms exist in Berkshire County now than they did 15 years ago (525 in 2012 compared to 401 in 2002), but they do so on less land (61,656 in 2012 compared to 68,630 in 2002).

"I'm working very hard on promoting local dairies, because they are the backbone," Zheutlin said. In the meantime, Berkshire Grown is making great efforts to support any other farmers in the region, especially by connecting consumers with their product. Ideally, people can use Berkshire Grown's "Find Food and Farms" directory to decide which farm they should zip to down the road and get their food straight from the source.

But Zheutlin said that the local food economy also needs to meet people where they're at.

"So many people's lives are chock full of activity that for many of us, our priority is convenience," she said. It helps, then, to have farmers markets in every town, local produce on grocery store shelves, and even a delivery service like Berkshire Organics. To that end, the state's Healthy Initiatives Program also rewards Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients by doubling their dollars spent at CSAs and farmers markets.

"People are really starting to value where their food comes from," Zheutlin said. "We could become way more self-sufficient ... if we do it together."

No longer boutique?

Amelia said that almost all the families that buy meat from Sky View Farm are interested in knowing exactly how their food is raised and slaughtered. Some want to be there, for instance, one of the four or five times a year that a mobile processing unit is towed to the Sheffield property to slaughter chickens.

While this "know your food" attitude — and the very idea of a meat CSA — may be considered boutique by some, Amelia doesn't want that to be the case.

Wandering between a pile of excitable piglets and patting one of her cows on the head last week, she said she hopes people start to see buying food raised next door as typical, and not as a luxury.

"We really want to build a financially sustainable, successful business," she said. "We really just want to provide meat for local families."


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