Retired Berkshire Grown leader to be honored for farm-to-table advocacy

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PITTSFIELD — When farming advocate Barbara Zheutlin picks up an award this month, standing with her, at least in spirit, will be hundreds of people who keep food flowing to Berkshires tables.

Zheutlin, who retired last month as head of the nonprofit Berkshire Grown, is this year's recipient of the Charles Kusik Award.

"I feel like I'm accepting it for all the farmers in the Berkshires," Zheutlin said.

For two decades, the honor has been presented yearly by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission to people or groups that have made "outstanding contributions to planning in Berkshire County." It is named for a former diplomat who helped pioneer planning and zoning practices in the region, and who nurtured his own connection to agriculture, raising poultry at his home in Richmond.

While awards like this often mark retirements, Zheutlin made clear in an interview that the cause she championed for 11 years at Berkshire Grown, and for three years with another local group, is hardly in the rearview mirror.

Last week, she journeyed to Williamstown to accompany her Berkshire Grown successor, Margaret Moulton, on a visit to East Mountain Farm, where Kim Wells has been producing locally raised beef, pork and chicken since the 1980s.

And she is looking ahead to the continued growth of year-round farmers markets in the Berkshires, as the group builds on its outreach in South County.

"It's really important to think of the whole region," Zheutlin said.

Members of the commission's executive panel picked Zheutlin as this year's winner from a field of nominees. Their choice underscores the central point Zheutlin has been making for more than a decade at Berkshire Grown. She became its leader in 2007.

"Agriculture is still an important part of what the Berkshires is all about," said Thomas Matuszko, the commission's executive director. "Barbara has done a terrific job changing the narrative for Berkshire County."

That story, he suggests, is no longer about farming's decline, though some sectors, especially dairying, remain in trouble.

When Matuszko briefed the full commission on Zheutlin's selection, he said she played an instrumental role in strengthening Berkshire Grown, whose mission, he said, is to "keep farmers farming."

Zheutlin will be honored Oct. 25 at the commission's annual meeting at the Country Club of Pittsfield.

Making farms viable

The mission, for Zheutlin and Berkshire Grown, has been to foster local markets for farm products, helping make farms more viable. The group advocates on behalf of farmers, connects food buyers with farms, promotes the value of locally produced food and raises awareness about the importance of local food sources.

How important?

"We wouldn't be alive if it wasn't for food," Zheutlin said in all seriousness.

When asked about Berkshire Grown's current projects, its newly retired leader didn't sound like she has moved on. Zheutlin said she is cheered by expansion of the program's occasional markets, including March and April events in Great Barrington, where the program is based. Dates and locations of winter farmers markets can be found at berkshiregrown.org.

"That means we'll have year-round farmers markets. That puts money into the pockets of farmers. That feels exciting to me — and it's also delicious, because the food is so good."

Berkshire Grown does its own kind of farming — by cultivating conditions for farm success. Zheutlin said the program works to help beginners, which she describes as growers with 10 or fewer years in the business.

"We're trying to grow the number of farms in the community," she said.

Zheutlin knows something of human motivation; she earned a master's degree in clinical psychology. After moving to the Berkshires in 1995, she worked as a researcher at the Austen Riggs psychiatric center in Stockbridge. Zheutlin has also produced documentaries.

The future of local food depends, she said, on having young people take up farming — and prosper at it.

"That offers us an opportunity. We hope we can have all of those young people make a living and local food for us all to eat."

The program also works to help avoid setbacks.

"We're interested in strengthening the dairy farms so we don't lose any more of them," she said.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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