Samantha Murray ’14 had never before set foot on a farm. Yet at one point over the summer, the beach loving, Southern California native found herself in a field, facing down 50 sheep who’d come barreling over a hill in her direction.
It’s an experience Murray says she’ll never forget. And it was just one of many adventures she and three other students had as they interviewed farmers across Northern Berkshire County as part of Keep Berkshire Farming, a county- wide initiative that will form the basis for a community food systems plan.The three-year effort in the northern portion of the county, coordinated by Sarah Gardner, associate director of the college’s Center for Environmental Studies (CES), involves surveying area residents, farmers, restauranteurs, food store managers, distributors, and institutional purchasers to better understand the challenges and opportunities of producing and buying local food. Gardner and her students (she has five more this fall) present their findings to agricultural commissions and at public forums. They’re also developing recommendations to make regional agriculture more economically viable.
“We ask the farmers how they got into the business,” says David Nolan ’13, another summer student and philosophy major, who grew up in Williamstown. “More often than not they answer with a grin: ‘By bad luck and being born into it.’
“Our goal,” he says, “is to understand what has made farming ‘bad luck’ and, if we can, to begin to remove the obstacles that threaten the most consistent, and consistently productive, industry this area has ever seen.”
Gardner, a lecturer in environmental studies who teaches an environmental planning workshop each year, says Keep Berkshire Farming meshes well with the CES mission of community outreach and experiential learning. “Right now most of our farms are losing money,” she says. “We stand to lose a lot of our farmland.”
The challenge is to create a regional food system in which the milk, meat, and produce grown here is consumed here. “A hundred years ago, local food systems were the norm,” Gardner says. “If we can figure out how to re-localize the food economy in the Berkshires, it will be a model for other regions and communities.”