Executive Spotlight: Cynthia Pansing, executive director of Berkshire Agricultural Ventures

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PITTSFIELD — Farmers and others who are involved in local agriculture have found a financial ally in Berkshire Agricultural Ventures.

Since it transitioned from a program of other organizations to become a separate nonprofit in 2017, the Great Barrington-based firm has invested $888,100 in the local food economy in Berkshire County, Columbia County in New York and Litchfield County in Connecticut, and supported 75 projects that have impacted 3,928 acres, according to the organization's most recent annual community impact report.

Berkshire Agricultural Ventures is headed by Executive Director Cynthia Pansing, who came to the Berkshires five years ago from the Washington area. She has extensive experience with nonprofit and public organizations that are involved with sustainable agriculture, and is the former CEO of a national food and sustainable agricultural firm.

We talked with Pansing recently about Berkshire Agricultural Ventures' mission, her interest in food and agriculture, and why she grows her own fruit trees.

Q: You have degrees in anthropology and urban and environmental planning (from UCLA). How did this lead to a career in farms and agriculture?

A: Actually, my interest in food is based really from childhood. My mother really was responsible for helping me and my sister better understand where food comes from and the connection to health. We used to do things like pick wild blackberries and make jam out of them, and also dandelion greens to make salads and so forth. That was my family heritage.

Q: How did anthropology fit into this?

A: I also had a long-standing interest in learning about other cultures. ...

When I went on to graduate school in anthropology, my key interest was in the connection between food and health, particularly food among nomads in West Africa. I did research there ... I went to planning school because I'm a problem solver at heart. ... Being a detached observer as an anthropologist was very difficult for me. ... So, you can see the building blocks throughout my life for this position that I have.

Q: What is BAV's mission?

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A: Our distinct mission is to invest in farms and food businesses to advance the future of the food economy in our region. We do that by investing both money and capacity-building assistance in the farms and food businesses in the region that we serve.

Q: There's a lot of information in your annual community impact report about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the region's farmers. Tell me about that.

A: COVID-19 has turned things on end, really, for all of us. Interestingly, one of the areas of greatest need was because of the shutdown in schools and school lunch programs and just the timing of when COVID-19 hit in the Berkshires. There was a more limited array of local foods available.

Providing healthy food to a wide swath of the population became really a priority area. That's part of our mission, but it became a priority area for funders. We were lucky to be part of the Berkshire United Way/Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation fund that was established to help nonprofit organizations weather the impact of COVID-19 and really adapt to that. ... We were seeing proposal after proposal related to the fund for that purpose.

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Q: Is that how BAV formed its resilience fund for farmers (the fund provides zero percent forgivable loans or grants to help farmers adapt to the realities of COVID-19)?

A: Yes. What we did once we got the grant is, we started to fundraise for it, and we were able to triple the size of the funds.

In the early stages, we were very strategic about where we allocated the money, because we wanted to benefit as many farmers and as wide a range of residents and consumers as we could because we see a really strong connection between farm viability, food business viability and healthy food access.

Really, the first project that we supported was Roots Risings' virtual [farmers] market [in Pittsfield].

Q: Was holding virtual farmers markets your idea?

A: We didn't come up with the idea. Roots Rising came up with it, and they approached us for support. ... We believe in it, really, for three primary reasons: One, is that Roots Rising is a terrific organization. Two, what they were trying to do was address an emergent need from COVID-19, but there was also a need for the region as a whole to have an e-commerce platform that, really, anybody can get access to. ...

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They used this project to help open up opportunities to strengthen healthy food access, like applying to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to get approval to do online SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] processing for low-income consumers. ... It filled the broader local need within the toolkit of the food system in Berkshire County and the outlying regions and has legs for expansion in the future.

Q: Due to the pandemic, all kinds of services we used to do in person have gone virtual. Are virtual farmers markets the future for consumers seeking healthy food?

A: I don't think it's the future. I think it's a future. Healthy food systems are like an ecosystem where there's a mix of strategies. You can't have a one-size-fits-all approach. That's what constitutes a good, healthy economy. This has been a missing piece in this region — not having any kind of e-commerce platform.

Q: How would you assess the state of farming and sustainable agriculture in the Berkshires region right now, and where do you believe it's headed?

A: I think, frankly, from what we've seen through COVID-19, the local food system continues to be a backbone of our economy and a backbone of community well-being.

With all the innovation and energy from local farmers, I think we have a potentially promising future in terms of growing the food economy here. The reason I say potentially promising is because there have been a lot of opportunities that have arisen in terms of selling — people have unique flexibilities and have been able to adapt to COVID-19 to some degree — but COVID has also revealed some bottlenecks in the system.

One of them would be food processing. No local farmers who grow livestock can find space in the local processing facilities for processing meat. That's a really big issue. It's an issue that we're looking forward to addressing with farmers and like-minded organizations in the future.

Q: Do you farm or grow food yourself?

A: My daughter and I have a little garden where we grow a mix of vegetables. It's very small, but I really like to [do] as much as possible to support farmers and to know what they're doing. We also have fruit trees, blueberry bushes and raspberries, so [my daughter] is continuing in my mother's footsteps.


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