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A pandemic, lockdowns and inflation expose fragile food-supply systems. Great Barrington is looking to fix that

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Elizabeth Keen, of Indian Line Farm in South Egremont, along with Noah Cohen, checks the quality of tomatoes harvested for their Community Supported Agriculture last year. 

GREAT BARRINGTON — Look out at the expanse of rolling hills and fields, and it’s a wonder anyone in Berkshire County can’t get enough healthy food.

Or that a supermarket might be out of eggs.

Great Barrington is looking to change this incongruity and the reliance on a now-shaky supply chain. Access to healthy food and a place to grow it are central to an initiative that soon will take shape.

The town held its first “Growing Better Great Barrington” meeting Feb. 3 to begin envisioning a plan to offset the reliance on corporate food systems, particularly during unstable economic periods or amid weather shifts that could affect the supply chain.

This would mean, in part, more growing of food in town, and making sure residents can afford it or grow it themselves.

“This is of particular importance as the climate disruptions and economic shocks stretch our food system and our food dollars,” said Town Planner and Assistant Town Manager Christopher Rembold, who is the project manager for the effort.

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Tess Adams harvests purple carrots at Indian Line Farm in South Egremont. Access to healthy food and a place to grow it are central to an initiative that soon will take shape in Great Barrington.

The town will hold a second public meeting, via Zoom, on March 3 as it works to gather ideas from residents and those already working on these issues with various organizations.

The project is funded by a $10,000 state grant that will pay for student consultants from the Conway School of Landscape Design in Northampton to pull together all the concepts, analyze land use and flesh out practical solutions that it will present this spring.

Conway students have done this before. Projects include analysis and recommendations for other communities, including Northampton and Springfield.

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Orchestrating the effort are Great Barrington’s Agricultural Commission and Strategic Sustainability Committee.

The local food resilience idea isn’t new. Groups like Berkshire Grown, Berkshire Agricultural Ventures and the Great Barrington Farmers’ Market long have worked to support farms and farmers.

Meanwhile, other organizations and food pantries have helped make sure residents don’t go hungry amid a growing food insecurity crisis that the coronavirus pandemic worsened. Growing inflation is deepening the problems. So is the rising cost of housing and land, making it hard to find a place to grow food.

Rembold told The Eagle that this project is building on the continuing work of all these groups, and creating a model that could solve the problem at its root.

North Plain Farm Pigs

Farmer Sean Stanton greets his pigs at North Plain Farm in Great Barrington. The town has begun envisioning a plan to offset the reliance on corporate food systems, particularly during unstable economic periods or amid weather shifts that could affect the supply chain.

The Agricultural Commission also has worked toward this effort. It created a pollinator plan in 2018 to ensure a robust ecosystem. It now wants to pull together government with the business, school, farming and faith communities to help solve the food problem, said Commission Chair Vivan Orlowski, who said the pandemic is spurring momentum.

“Now, more people are recognizing the urgency of developing local solutions,” she said, noting author Michael Pollan’s article about the pandemic revelation of “The Sickness of Our Food Supply,” knocking the supermarket model of abundance and cheap prices that couldn’t be maintained during a crisis.

Whatever is planned for land use in Great Barrington, commission member Luke Pryjma hopes people will remember that this land is sacred to the Stockbridge Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians, whose ancestors were forced off their homelands.

“We welcome folks to hold the history,” he said.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or 413-329-6871.

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