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We Grow Our Own

In the Berkshires, the local, sustainable food movement took hold early and just keeps getting bigger

by Stephen Leon on June 23, 2011

Photos by William Wright

Ted Dobson of Equinox Farm: "We were at the right place at the right time."

When Berkshire Co-op Market opened at its current location in Great Barrington in 2002, the store sold about $100,000 in locally grown and made products in its first year. “And we thought that was the bomb,” says general manager Art Ames, expressing his happiness at that time with the low-six-figure sales.

Little did he know the extent to which the demand for locally produced food was about to explode: In the current fiscal year, Ames says, the market will sell about $1.8 million in local products.

Running the Berkshire Co-op Market has put Ames squarely in the midst—in more ways than one—of a significant cultural shift in how many Americans think about the food they eat. For one thing, he is very aware of significant changes happening in his own industry: “In the early ’80s,” he says, “the fastest growing department in grocery stores, bar none, was frozen foods.” Today, he says, among food co-ops nationwide, frozen foods is the one department that is actually shrinking.

All across the country, phrases like “locally grown,” “farm-to-table” and “100-mile diet” have been turning up with more and more frequency as restaurants increasingly feature locally sourced ingredients, and buy-local advocates and consumers alike extol the virtues of farmers markets, food co-ops and CSAs. But if this movement seems widespread now, it came early to Berkshire County—and seems more embedded in the culture there than in many other regions of the country.

Agriculture has deep roots in Berkshire County, but in the postwar era, any idea of a sustainable food culture took a backseat to a new model of food production that stressed processing, packaging and mass production of heavily marketed brands. Even as the county began to develop a reputation for excellent restaurants—spurred in large part by the weekend and summer visitors who flocked there to relax amid the natural beauty and experience world-class arts—the best chefs weren’t necessarily shopping locally. In the late’60s, says Ames, when gas was cheap and we were starting to see peaches in supermarkets year-round, chefs “were interested in getting the best stuff, but they’d shop far and wide for it.”

But new ideas about the relationship of consumers and food were beginning to take hold in the ’80s, and Berkshire County was on the leading edge of what would become a widespread movement. In 1985, Robyn Van En, Jan Vandertuin and a coalition of local citizens (including Susan Witt, who has long been a local advocate for land trusts and human-scale economies, and developed a microcredit program that was a precursor to the county’s local-only currency, BerkShares), founded one of the nation’s first two community-supported-agriculture programs at Indian Line Farm in South Egremont. (The other, in New Hampshire, appeared at roughly the same time; today there are more than 12,000 CSA farms in the United States.)

Informed by the thinking of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who held that consumers and producers were closely bound by common interests, and German economist E.F. Schumacher, who believed in small-scale economies where you produce locally what is consumed locally, the group began the experiment with an apple orchard and extended the plan to include produce grown at Indian Line Farm. The concept is simple: Consumers agree to buy a “share” in the farm before the growing season, raising capital for the farmers when they need it most; as the harvest comes in throughout the summer and fall, consumers pick up a weekly supply of fresh fruits and vegetables in return.

Soon, the idea of forming a stronger community with growers spread to some of the county’s chefs. According to Ted Dobson, who runs Equinox Farm in Sheffield, in the late ’80s and ’90s, the movement really got going because consumers and chefs began coming together in a conversation about food. “Consumers started to make very conscious choices of what they wanted to eat,” Dobson says, and the chefs listened. And as a result, chefs began talking more to local farmers about what they’d like to buy from them.

Early on, say some involved in the movement, there was a split between adherents of the CSA model and the growing ranks of farm-to-table growers who sold to markets and restaurants, almost as if on a socialist-capitalist divide. But, in the Berkshires especially, all the various players—the farms, the markets, the restaurants, the consumers—began to realize they were on to something, and that they were partners in a broader movement. And many of those involved credit the group Berkshire Grown, which formed in the mid-’90s, with making it easier for farmers, chefs, markets and consumers to connect.

“There was something stirring at the time,” says Dobson. “[The chefs] saw they could get the same thing from me that they got from the Sysco truck. . . . By 1987 it was a full-blown change. By the mid-’90s you had a critical mass of farmers who had gotten into the game.”

And once chefs realized the quality of ingredients available to them in their own backyard, for many, there was no turning back. Bjorn Somlo, chef-owner of Nudel restaurant in Lenox, is relatively new to the Berkshires, but not to the concept of relying heavily on locally grown produce and artisan foods. “If you’re going to cook food,” he says, “why bother doing it any other way?” And, he adds, “you can’t import better stuff” than what is produced here.

 

Laura Meister of Farm Girl Farm: "I have a lot of faith in what everybody's doing"

In a meeting room at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, an assortment of restaurant owners, chefs, and farmers, along with Art Ames from the Berkshire Co-op Market, and a Metroland writer, have gathered to discuss the local food culture of the Berkshires, why it seems more focused and more progressive than in many other regions, and how it got that way.

Not surprisingly, they all enthusiastically agree with that premise, though it might be easy enough to dismiss that as self-interest. Except that over the course of the two-hour meeting, it becomes clear that there is a real camaraderie among the participants, a sense that they are not competitors but partners who depend on each other for their collective success.

Somlo, along with Red Lion executive chef Brian Alberg and Dan Smith, chef-owner of John Andrews: A Farmhouse Restaurant in South Egremont, agree that it is routine for local chefs to call each other with questions. And when a farmer is out of a particular fruit or vegetable being requested by a client, he or she will cheerfully suggest another grower who might have it, says Laura Meister, owner of Farm Girl Farm, which runs a CSA and also supplies restaurants, the Berkshire Co-op Market, and Guido’s Fresh Marketplace in Pittsfield and Great Barrington.

Commenting on how close-knit and trusting this community is, Meister adds, “I have a lot of faith in what everybody’s doing, so if Brian Alberg calls me and says this is an important meeting, you should be here, I just go.”

Somlo, the relative newcomer who credits the other people in the room with being “the trailblazers who let me have what I now have,” adds, “The dedication to excellence, local, natural and integrity are values that marble the very history of the Berkshires. The pursuit of these values are genuine and heartfelt. This sincerity is what makes it such a joy to be a part of this community.”

And Berkshire Grown, by establishing local food and farm networks and doing marketing and outreach for its members, has helped further knit this community together. “Berkshire Grown is kind of the catalyst for the farmers, and if you’re part of Berkshire Grown, then you’re part of a community that wants to work and thrive together,” says Chris Masiero, who co-owns Guido’s with his brother. “Berkshire Grown . . . brings in the merchandising and marketing. What farmers do best is they grow things.”

Like Ames, Masiero has seen a steady increase in sales of locally produced food. “Customers seek out local products, absolutely. They want to see farmland, not condominiums, and in order to do that,” he says, they have to keep farms sustainable. He adds that it’s the locals even more so than the tourists, because they have the local connection.

In fact, there have been some who dismiss the Berkshires’ trend toward locally grown food culture as something that can only be supported by the affluent, restaurant-going tourists and second-homeowners who seem to take over the county in the summer.

While there is some acknowledgement that it may have started as a top-down movement, several people said it has filtered into all income classes as more people have become better informed about food. Ames says there are more lower-income people shopping at the co-op than ever before, because they are more educated about food and grocery shopping than ever before: “They know that they can get a pound of bulk organic brown rice cheaper than Uncle Ben’s.”

Meister says many of her CSA clients are tradespeople and local families that do not fit the affluent New Yorker stereotype. And Carol Bosco Baumann, director of marketing and communications for the Red Lion Inn, observes that the inn has been drawing good crowds for its sustainable menus on Sundays and Mondays—nights when the inn is not as full. Some of the diners are definitely locals.

Success can bring new challenges; for example, Ames says he is concerned about where the next generation of farmers is going to come from to satisfy the growing demand for locally raised produce and other food products. Yet, recent surveys have shown an uptick in young people identifying farming as a potential career. “Of the people who have worked for me,” says Meister, “several have started their own farms.”

Nancy Thomas, proprietor of Mezze Restaurant Group (which includes Mezze Catering and Mezze and Allium restaurants in Williamstown and Great Barrington, respectively), has a different concern: She wonders if the Berkshires’ local, sustainable food movement will ever achieve the critical mass to put it on a par with the county’s other high-profile industry. “I’m working really hard to put food and agriculture on the table on the same level as the arts,” she says.

“A conversation I’ve been having about food as culture: Are we in America ready to have a food culture?” Thomas asks. “I don’t want to have to go to France or Italy to have a food-culture experience, when I live in the Berkshires, surrounded by farmland.”

But others see no reason for the movement not to spread, especially with the specter of peak oil and the very real possibility that the increasing cost of shipping food great distances will make it not only healthier, but cheaper and more efficient to grow and sell food locally.

In Ted Dobson’s view, his faith in what he set out to do a quarter-century ago has been rewarded. “I thought and believed, in the early 1980s, that people would enjoy eating good organically grown food. . . . It turns out that we were at the right place at the right time. In retrospect, with all the jading that goes along with life, age and making a living, it was a wonderful idea whose time is still in its juvenile stages.”