EGREMONT — Elizabeth Keen stands in a muddy tire rut near a greenhouse fragrant with basil and unripe tomato plants, talking with the state’s agriculture chief about crop varieties and downy mildew.
Up on the hill, the original barn is getting a $230,000 makeover to increase output and efficiency here at Keen’s Indian Line Farm, with its legendary Community Supported Agriculture program — said to be the first in the U.S. Keen and her husband, Al Thorp, often are short on help as they oversee an overflowing output that also fuels farmers markets, grocers and restaurants.
“We just feel so grateful and honored,” she told a group of visitors, including Massachusetts Department of Agriculture Commissioner John Lebeaux, during a Berkshire Grown tour of four South County farms on Tuesday. “I just want to make sure this farm is something I would feel good about passing on.”
The earth here is a winner, since it’s on part of a tract so fertile that the Housetunnock people kept it as their reservation, as recorded in a 1724 deed. Yet, modern farmers still live on the edge — some more so than others. Berkshire Grown, a farmer and local food advocacy nonprofit organized this tour of farms that are vulnerable because they lease or rely on a handshake for a grazing pasture, for instance.
For Indian Line, access is stable, since Keen and Thorp signed into a land-use partnership with The Nature Conservancy and The Community Land Trust of the Southern Berkshires. It has taken grit, sweat equity and a lot of their own money to turn a ramshackle farm into the certified organic producer it is today, Keen said.
Keen and Thorp have paid off the $55,000 mortgage on a lease that runs 99 years, and with strict rules about what has to happen here on the 17 acres — 6 or 7 that are tillable.
“I think we’ve got something like 79 more years,” she said. “We don’t have to worry about getting kicked off the property; we just have to follow the rules.”
Not so for other local farmers that Lebeaux met Tuesday.
Molly Comstock, of Colfax Farm in Alford, is facing an expired lease and a landlord who won’t renew. She is collaborating with Indian Line this season.
Christian Stovall, of Hidden Mountain Farm in New Marlborough, raises and breeds grass-fed Border Leicesters and up to 95 lambs, intensely rotating on several pastures in a 25-mile radius in South County. And Anna Houston and Rob Perazzo, of Off the Shelf Farm, also in New Marlborough, also are on the rotation plan for their 3,000 laying hens, 750 broiler chickens and 75 lambs. They move animals to different pastures before dawn, and they have no formal lease on which to rely.
Lebeaux came to the Berkshires to understand these challenges (last month, he did a local dairy farm tour). On his way down to Indian Line’s fields, he told The Eagle the agency is committed.
“Our stated mission is to keep the food supply safe and secure and to keep Massachusetts agriculture environmentally and economically sound,” he said, noting the “unprecedented” $36 million for its Food Security Infrastructure Grant Program.
Gov. Charlie Baker has been pushing money into the program, which is designed to ensure access to food, especially locally grown food, and to help farmers produce it. Indian Line received $214,000 for the barn overhaul, and that pays for most of it.
There always is one more thing to do on this long-loved slice of earth. For Keen, the difficulty of applying for that grant at the height of farming season was worth it being “an obstacle to my sanity.”
Jessica Camp, who then worked at Berkshire Grown, helped Keen write it. Camp, a former vegetable farmer, now works for the department as a beginning farmer specialist, helping the next generation.