Local farms branch out to stay alive

Monday, August 20
HANCOCK — Drive by Ioka Valley Farm on Route 43 and you'll see animals, silos, a stand to sell blueberries and Uncle Don's Barnyard.

"Farm entertainment," farm owner Donald Leab says with a smile.

Situated in a barn that was originally built to hold dairy cows, Uncle Don's Barnyard contains games and activities associated with farming that allow visitors to have fun when they visit the Leabs' 600-acre spread that straddles the Massachusetts-New York state line.

The barn also has a more practical use. It houses the cows that the Leabs raise to sell natural beef, a market they say is growing in the Berkshires. Ioka Valley Farm, which has been in Donald Leab's family since 1936, was strictly a dairy farm until 1996.

"I can remember 25 (dairy) farms on this one road," Donald Leab said. "Now there's one."

Large dairy farms, once the staple of Berkshire County's farm industry, have declined precipitously mainly due to the high costs of producing milk. It has led many farmers, like the Leabs, to diversify their operations in order to survive. A burgeoning market for local food products, advanced by entities such as Berkshire Grown, the Great Barrington-based nonprofit agency, has led to an influx of specialty farms throughout the Berkshires. Some grow just one product.

Local farm officials say the recent trend toward diversification and specialization are reasons why the Berkshires have experienced a slight increase in the number of farms, from 387 in 1997 to 401 in 2002, according to five-year U.S. Department of Agriculture census statistics, obtained from the USDA's New England Regional Bureau in New Hampshire and the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission (The 2007 census is currently taking place). These numbers follow a more significant increase of 67 farms in the five years between 1992 (320) to 1997 (387).

The number of acres being farmed in the Berkshires, which dropped from 70,000 to 60,000 between 1987 and 1992, has also gone up slightly from 62,833 in 1997 to 68,630 in 2002.

Farms between one and nine acres and 10 and 49 acres decreased between 1997 and 2002, but the number of farms between 10 and 49 acres rose from 96 in 1997 to 134 five years ago.

"Size has gone down, and the numbers have gone up," said Aimee Thayer, the executive director of the Berkshire County Farm Service Agency in Pittsfield, adding that not all the farms in the Berkshires are included in the USDA statistics. "Much of the large agricultural land has been bought up as the large dairy farms went out (of business)."

"In 1968, we had 180 dairy farms in Berkshire County," Thayer said. "Now we have 20 full-time dairy sized farms. And the whole state has 180, so it's really been a mass exodus from dairying."

Different schools of thought

Thayer, however, hesitates when asked if diversification is a key factor that has allowed Berkshire County farms to stay operational.

"You would get as many opinions on that as you have farmers," Thayer said. "A couple of folks who've gone into it say it's the only way they would've stayed alive. But on the other hand, there are dairies operating without diversification that have stayed alive if that means hanging on by their fingernails.

"Diversification is an option, on the one hand," Thayer said. "With specializing, on the other hand, you can take it to the other extreme: Modify something, and market only that. If you do it well you can do it locally. ... I think at either end of the spectrum there's room."

Donald and Judy Leab said they decided to diversify their farm 11 years ago when the price of producing milk became too high. Unlike other farm products, Thayer said milk prices are set by a national board that establishes the price based on production across the country, which means dairy farmers in the Berkshires are competing directly with much larger operations in states like California and Wisconsin.

"We weren't going backward, but we weren't moving forward," Donald Leab said

Their son, Rob, also expressed an interest in running the farm, but didn't want to milk cows, Donald said. So the Leabs literally turned their farm into two businesses. On the farm side, they raise cattle for natural beef, corn seed, a form of fermented feed known as "bailage," and corn they sell for grain.

They formed a limited liability company to handle the business side. Besides Uncle Don's Barnyard, the Leabs manufacture and sell maple syrup, conduct blueberry- and strawberry-picking operations, and sell both pumpkins and home-grown Christmas trees. They are planning to host a Christmas Tree Growers Association meeting next year. The metal tanks and pipes that the Leabs once used to gather and store milk now provide the same function for maple syrup.

"All we did was take the pipes and hook them into the trees," he said.

Local markets

Donald Leab said he believes there is a local market for natural beef, because his supplier in Boston is looking at markets in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Natural beef is one of several local products promoted by Berkshire Grown, which formed in the 1990s following ongoing discussions about the role of agriculture and the environment, said Barbara Zheutlin, the organization's executive director.

"They do a lot of connecting between farms and restaurants," said Leab, who along with his wife has been a member of Berkshire Grown's board of directors since its inception. "As a farmer, you don't know how to approach a restaurant. They're very instrumental in teaching us techniques."

Zheutlin said Berkshire Grown created a directory that links farmers to restaurants and local markets that are interested in purchasing home-grown products.

"I know it has helped local farmers, because this is a business that we didn't have before," Zheutlin said. "For small farmers, it's made a big difference. A place like Big Y wants food in a volume that local farmers can't produce."

Thayer said the influx of second-home owners in the Berkshires created a market for locally grown produce.

"If you can sell a pound of organically grown mushrooms for $8 a pound, you're almost getting everything a dairy farmer's getting for 100 pounds of milk," she said. "And Berkshire County is, demographically, a great place to market that stuff.

"We're close to the markets in New York and Boston," she said. "We have a huge population of second-home owners who are willing to pay those prices."

Thayer hopes the market for local food continues.

"The local food is a fad for the moment," she said. "I don't know if it's a fad that will stick. I certainly hope it is."

As part of the diversification process, some larger farms have also established Community Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) farms on their property, which allow people to purchase shares of a farm's harvest at the beginning of the growing season, then pick up their freshly picked produce on a weekly basis.

Holiday Farm in Dalton established a two-acre CSA on its roughly 1,300-acre lot to go along with its other activities, which include the selling of maple syrup, firewood, hay, compost, top soil and Christmas trees. Holiday Farm also includes a stable to board horses, a cottage for rent, even a mountain bike course, current owner, Dicken Crane said. Hs great-grandfather, Frederick G. Crane Sr., founded the farm in 1895 by combining three smaller farming operations into a dairy farm.

Crane said diversifying allows him to stay in business because farming is not profitable.

"It's pretty much 'cash-flow even,' " he said, "so that the money coming in pretty much contains the money that goes out."

Farm acreage down

The amount of farm acreage in Berkshire County has decreased by 182,521 acres since 1930, when the U.S. census indicated that 1,604 farms occupied 40.6 percent of the county's entire land. Increased property taxes, combined with the high prices for prime real estate, have led some large landowners to sell large tracts of land and open space for commercial and real estate development.

"My predecessor, Sonny Williams, used to say you can make more money growing houses than you can corn," Thayer said. "And he was right."

Farmland is also difficult to pass on from generation-to-generation unless property owners obtain state conservation restrictions that restrict land use to its present state. This means the value of the land will remain assessed at the current use.

The Cranes obtained an agricultural preservation restriction for 200 acres of Holiday Farm, and a forestry restriction on an additional 1,000 acres.

"Farm families that did not seek those tax abatements have a hard time holding onto their land once it is passed on to different generations because the tax levied by the state is so high," Dicken Crane said.

To combat an increase in the price of milk production, the state recently granted dairy farmers a one-time $36 million payment to be divvied up based on their production of 100 pound weights of milk, Thayer said.

Local farmers were also hurt earlier this year when a federal government subsidy to increase the production of ethanol caused the price of feed to increase from around $200 to roughly $300 per ton, according to James M. Larkin of Sheffield, the director of the Berkshire County Farm Bureau.

"It's leveled off because corn planting has increased," he said.

Larkin helps operate Larkin Farm, a dairy farm that has been in his family since the 1920s. The Larkins have dabbled in diversification — they allowed a cell tower to be constructed on their property — but are still "90-plus percent dairy," he said.

"We try and keep our costs down to weather the bad times," Larkin said.

To reach Tony Dobrowolski: tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com (413) 496-6224.


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