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Study Reveals Big Challenges for Berkshire Farms

Dairy cow (file)
WAMC/Pat Bradley

A study looking at the current and future state of agriculture in the Berkshires is already revealing some bad news. WAMC’s Berkshire Bureau Chief Lucas Willard reports….

Keep Berkshires Farming is a group of volunteers that are looking for ways to keep the agricultural history of Western Massachusetts alive in the Berkshires. Formed by Sustainable Berkshires, the federally funded initiative is managed by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. The Keep Berkshires Farming study process involves interviewing farmers across five separate regions of Berkshire County, as well as investigating the economics of local farming.

Amy Kacala, senior planner at the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, says that different areas of the County are more suitable for certain kinds of farming.

And in North County, which is more suited for dairy farming, the economic outlook is not shaping up too well. Sarah Gardner, Associate Director for the Center for Environmental Studies at Williams College, says that the common problem for most of the 48 farmers interviewed in North Berkshire County is the cost of land. The small pastures and the high cost of farming are making it hard for the area’s dairy farmers to compete with milk from other areas of the country.

Gardner said that many of the farmers interviewed also claimed that in order to remain profitable, they sometimes must sell off portions of their land to be used for development. Gardner says that in many cases, family members of the farmers often need to take an additional job to help support the farm.

Farmers in North County are also aging.  The average age of the 48 farmers surveyed is 60 years, and many of them do not have a family member planning to take over the farm.

As far farming beef cattle, currently the area does not have a suitable processing plant. For dairy production, some nearby areas including in Vermont, the Pioneer Valley, and Connecticut do process milk. But Sarah Gardener says that even with nearby processing facilities, it’s hard for Berkshire dairy farmers to make a profit.

The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission’s Sustainable Berkshires initiative will compile the farming data from the Keep Berkshires Farming volunteers in the coming months. Currently, South and North County data is being collected, with 3 other areas soon to come. Information looking at the agricultural demand from institutions such as hospitals and schools will also be collected.  Amy Kacala says that the work is not possible without the help of volunteers.

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.