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Glenn Bergman: Berkshire's precious farmland deserves a big preservation effort

INDIANLINEFARMING-5

A crew at Indian Line Farm in Egremont works on the harvest in  August 2020.

It’s time to raise $100 million to protect farmland in Berkshire County.

There, I said it. I hope I got your attention. I’m not sure what the correct amount is, to tell you the truth, but it’s not a million here and a million there raised over a few years. At that pace, we’ll have very little farmland to save in Berkshire County, let alone in Columbia, Duchess and Litchfield counties, which are all part of the Berkshire Taconic foodshed economy.

In 1973, the great philosopher, farmer and writer Wendell Berry wrote, “A healthy farm culture can be based only upon familiarity and can grow only among a people soundly established upon the land.” In Berkshire County, for a farmer or “people” to be “soundly established upon the land” continues to be a difficult task. In just two years, farmland prices have risen 25 percent or more in our region. We shouldn’t be surprised that a decrease in the number of farms has followed.

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A recent article in The New York Times laments the problem with available farmland, land that is in “conservation” but not in agriculture or protected for agriculture. A letter to the editor in The Berkshire Eagle by Sarah Gardner at Williams College took up the issue of zoning for agricultural use in Williamstown, where zoning is often decided in favor of developers.

The only way to keep the people farming and to keep farm culture in this region will be to put a great deal of our land into agriculture land trusts, community land trusts, or protected land for agricultural use — and not for just “conservation” purposes. Anything short of this is unlikely to succeed.

As the executive director for Berkshire Agricultural Ventures, I have seen our nonprofit raise funds for all types of important projects, using loans of zero to 3 percent, grants, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of technical support for farmers in the four counties of the Berkshires. We will continue to do that for our farmers and local food producers. What we can’t do, nor are we equipped to do, is take on is land purchases.

Our region is home to a number of great organizations involved in acquiring land, but most are focused on conservation of land and not designating it strictly for agricultural use. I love the hiking, the vistas of beautiful land and the positive pollinator inputs, but this does very little to protect the 14,000 acres of land currently in agricultural use, nor does it do anything to substantially increase that number.

In our region, there is a wonderful model for maintaining farming on land in perpetuity, and that is the Berkshire Community Land Trust’s Indian Line Farm in Egremont. The 17 acres are owned by the Land Trust with the stipulation that this land will be farmed. The structures, above-ground improvements, and other machinery is owned by the farmer. The beauty of this model is that if land values go up, the land trust cannot sell nor does it have to worry about a group coming in to make an offer to buy them out. This model has been in operation for more than 20 years.

It’s time for us to make a long-term commitment to farming as an important sector of our economy. I’m tired of seeing Molly Comstock and the Harry Conklin Fund going around trying to raise a few thousand dollars in their events. We need to step forward with major state, county and philanthropic funds to raise $100 million for the purpose of keeping farmland protected from development. Let’s get Molly onto land for the rest of her life. Let’s assist the many farmers who are renting land to get on to land that will allow them to build a community and not have to worry about land prices, rent renewals, or having to search all over again for land.

Let’s support the many land trusts in our region to move them to place agricultural easements on land, or set up land trusts for agriculture. I’ve worked in businesses where the city or state provide for-profit businesses with free land transfers to move into a neighborhood or to remain in the state. There’s no reason we shouldn’t ask our elected officials and philanthropic community to step forward in a coordinated manner to buy up and protect the current land in cultivation for our life and future lives. What we do today to maintain the “farming culture” and farming economy will help make the Berkshires a place people love to live, visit and enjoy for generations to come.

This all starts by working to keep the people who feed us on the land.

Glenn Bergman is the executive director of Berkshire Agricultural Ventures in Great Barrington.

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