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Berkshire County's Growing Farm-To-Table Economy Impresses State

The Massachusetts Commissioner of Agriculture toured three farms in Berkshire County Wednesday to see how the region’s farm-to-table community and economy have been growing. 

The Berkshire Grown organization hosted three farm tours for the state’s Commissioner of Agriculture, John Lebeaux, and members of the state Department of Agricultural Resources on Wednesday.

The visit came at the peak of the tourist season, where most days, somewhere in Berkshire County, there’s a farmer’s market bringing fresh produce to the community.

Square Root Farms’ Michael Gallagher says sometimes it’s hard to get state government’s attention so far from Beacon Hill.

“We’re sort of in the corner between, you know, New York and Vermont and it’s not a lot of times, it’s not very often we get the attention from Boston and have people out here to really understand what is really going on out here,” Gallagher says.

Lebeaux says farms employ 28,000 in the state, not counting all of the jobs needed in processing produce. Farms in the Berkshires account for 11.8 percent of all of the state’s farmland. Labeaux says the economy also preserves land and provides nutritious food for families.

“I think folks should take a moment and imagine what it would be like if there were no farms around here and those familiar farms they drive by were now fully-developed land and how that would affect their quality of life,” Lebeaux says.

A pioneer in the region, Berkshire Grown started 20 years ago at the dawn of the modern farm-to-table movement. Executive Director Barbara Zheutlin says the group helps farms, restaurants, grocers and the community work together. She says agriculture is the region’s most important industry.

“Creating links between people in the community who live here,” Zheutlin says pointing at the farmers laying out a stand full of fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, heads of lettuce and cabbage.

“And all of us, we need food or we don’t live,” Zheutlin says.

Zheutlin says Massachusetts has some of the highest rates of farmers who sell directly to the community through farmers’ markets, farm stands or Community Supported Agriculture programs, which residents pay into earlier in the year to get a piece during harvest time.

“We actually cut out the middle man if we buy directly from the farmer and that helps us sustain local agriculture,” Zheutlin says.

Farmers say access to regulated farmland and marketing their products continue to pose challenges in Berkshire County. The state budget allocates $300,000 to buy local food from across the state next year. The state offers services and grant funding to organizations like Berkshire Grown. The next round of funding has not been announced; last year the region received $30,000.

“One of the things I have learned today that I admit I wasn’t aware of seemingly strong desire to get some type of either animal slaughter or transfer facility out here,” Lebeaux says.  

Another area that will see a lot of attention soon is the question of how farmers can start selling hemp. The state Cannabis Control Commission will handle marijuana, now legal in Massachusetts and predicted to be at least a $1 billion industry. 

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