Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Tale of Two Berkshires: finding common ground

What I first saw looked like a scene from a Norman Rockwell: 70-year-old farmers and their families gathered around picnic tables, making small talk, as the hosts put the final touches on the buffet just a few yards away in the sugar house. As in a classic painting of New England farmers, these men wore overalls and leather boots. Many had hearing aids, and some walked with canes. These were not the new farmers of my generation, setting up shop in this region in a quest to return to the land as their parents or more likely their grandparents did. These were not the farmers you would read about in glossy New York Times Magazine articles, or hear their stories on your local NPR station. No, these were the farmer-members of the Berkshires chapter of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, the state chapter of the national Farm Bureau. And I, as a representative of Berkshire Grown, the local food umbrella organization I was working for this past summer, had stumbled into their annual summer legislative picnic, to listen to their concerns, and share what Berkshire Grown was doing to better our local food system.

I quickly realized that these were not farmers I had previously met. I had spent the last few weeks criss-crossing the Berkshires, meeting with Berkshire Grown members from every corner of the county. Small-scale blueberry producers, five-acre veggie farms and grass-fed beef operations – I had become acquainted with the local agriculture scene in the Berkshires, one that is mostly boutique, small-scale, and often-times removed from much of the population that lives in the region. But these farmers were different. They were the Larkins who had been dairy farming in Sheffield since the 1800s, and ran one of the largest (industrial) dairy operations in the region. They were the Leabs (who hosted the picnic at their Ioka Valley Farm) who raise cattle on GMO feed. I so hate to use the word “real,” but I can’t lie: Throughout the event, I kept telling myself, “these are real farmers.”  

The food that they brought to the potluck picnic made this point clear: These farmers weren’t interested in a boutique local food system – they didn’t choose to farm in the Berkshires because it was a hip thing to do. They had been farming in the hills of Western Massachusetts for generations, and are completely different from the back-to-the-land farms down the road from them that Berkshire Grown mostly represents. It’s like comparing Chicago deep-dish pizza and New York thin crust pizza. I can’t argue that one is better than the other; both types of farms are feeding people, they just have totally different missions.

I found myself caught in the crossfire of farmers and politicians – never a pleasant place to be – that sunny July afternoon at Ioka Valley Farm in Hancock. After we (the farmers, organization representatives like myself, and politicians) had helped ourselves to the heaping stacks of food – GMO corn that was the sweetest I ever had, green bean casserole, homemade and likely-not-organic pickles, etc – we listened to speeches from the various politicians in attendance. Soon after members of the Berkshire delegation to the Massachusetts State House and Senate started speaking about their efforts pertaining to food/agriculture, farmers immediately started voicing their concerns about the recent GMO labeling propositions. One farmer blurted out, in the middle of a politician’s speech, “Just because those New York City second home folks are willing to pay more for their food doesn’t make it fair to the rest of us locals! We all use GMO feed and they better get used to it. No one knows what real farming is all about!”

This summed up the day for me. There I was, wearing my Berkshire Grown hat, driving my hybrid car, and thinking I knew it all about the local food system, but it was pretty clear I didn’t. It’s a complicated issue, and too often, we think by farming on a small-scale, we’re saving the world. We have to remember: There are folks out there who have been farming a lot longer than us, who are deeply set in their ways, and are feeding a lot of people. I’m not defending industrial agriculture by any means. All I’m saying is that it’s time we start looking at the bigger picture.

Rafi Bildner ‘16 is a farm managing intern at the Yale Sustainable Food Project.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012