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COMMENTARY

Sarah Gardner: Dairy farmers are keeping it real in the Berkshires, and they need our help

Dairy Cows (copy)

Topher Sabot of Cricket Creek Farm in Williamstown milks his herd of dairy cows in April 2020.

It’s morning at Cricket Creek Farm in Williamstown, and the dairy farm is bustling with activity. One worker scrubs the milk room, another hauls a wheelbarrow with buckets of whey for the pigs, and the cheesemaker pulls up.

With 35 Jersey and Brown Swiss cows, the farm is a local treasure: people bring their kids and guests to see the fetching doe-eyed cows and free-range pigs while soaking up the beauty of the rolling pastures and expansive view of Mount Greylock.

But the bustling farm belies a hard truth. Farming is not an easy way to make a living. “It’s often a struggle,” says Topher Sabot, the 46 year-old owner of Cricket Creek Farm. “I see myself as a steward of the land and strive to produce high quality food, but community support is essential to keep me going.”

Making ends meet is even tougher this year for the 17 Berkshire family farms that supply Massachusetts with milk. Labor is in short supply and inflation is skyrocketing. “With the price of all three inputs up — feed, fuel and fertilizer — it’s a constant financial struggle. There’s no footing,” says Wally Chenail of Chenail Brothers Dairy in Williamstown, which has been in operation since 1913.

The current economic conditions are forcing some farmers to go out of business and sell their land, and home developers and the solar industry are banging on the barn door. A recent New York Times article, “How ‘Fairy Tale’ Farms are Ruining Hudson Valley Agriculture,” sounds an alarm for the Berkshire farming region, too, jeopardizing family farms and the possibilities for next-generation farmers.

Second-home buyers are snapping up land for rural estates. Farm prices have spiked 62 percent since the pandemic began and farmers can’t compete. While some newcomers are open to leasing the property for agricultural purposes, they tend to prefer the look of storybook farms over the sights, smells and sounds of a commercial operation. Farms are losing leases and agriculture is suffering. In Massachusetts, more than 500 farmers are seeking farmland.

Losing farms is bad news for climate change and regional food security. Massachusetts is more self-sufficient for dairy products than any other food, and Berkshire County is the top dairy producer in the state. Dairy farms manage most of the county’s grasslands. A typical dairy owns 250 acres and manages several hundred acres more that they lease from landowners. Cricket Creek and other area dairy farms use intensive rotational grazing methods that regenerate the land and soil. Perennial pasturelands sequester carbon and are resilient to droughts, extreme heat and flooding.

This summer, let’s remember the daily efforts of our local dairy farmers and support our region’s dairy tradition so we can keep it real, local and beautiful here in the Berkshires and leave the fairy tale farms to the storybooks.

Eat an ice cream cone. Buy local cheese and dairy products at farm stands and stores. Most milk sold here is from cows in our region, and milk is a protein-rich affordable local food (unlike alternatives made from soy, oat and almonds). Ensure your town has enacted the right-to-farm bylaw that protects farmers’ rights to engage in farming practices, even if they occasionally produce noise or smells.

If you own farmland, even a few acres, consider leasing it to a farmer. There’s a farmland shortage and hundreds of new farmers are seeking land in Massachusetts. Encourage your local land trust to protect farms and working lands to ensure the Berkshires have farms in the future. Visit farmland.org/berkshire-farm-futures for a list of farm conservation and land access resources. Visit a dairy farm; many are open to the public.

Befriend your local farmers. As the number of farms dwindles, farmers can feel isolated, and they appreciate the support of their neighbors. Of course, you will also have a chance to be greeted by a doe-eyed calf who is guaranteed to make you smile.

Sarah Gardner is a member of the Massachusetts Dairy Sustainability Task Force and the Berkshire Farm Futures project.

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