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MA Agricultural Commissioner To Tour Berkshire Farms Tuesday

A flock of sheep graze in a meadow with a barn.
Berkshire Grown
Hidden Mountain Farm.

The Massachusetts Agricultural Commissioner is scheduled to tour four farms in Berkshire County Tuesday.

John Lebeaux will be joined by members of the Berkshire state legislative delegation as he makes the rounds as part of an annual visit to the county.

“This year, the theme is really farmers without farms, farmers who don't own their own land," Margaret Moulton told WAMC. "Farmers who maybe lease their land, farmers who, on a handshake and a smile, essentially borrow land or pasture and maybe move their animals all around the area.”

Moulton is the Executive Director of Berkshire Grown, a nonprofit advocacy network for county farmers and local agriculture. She says the real estate boom that has gripped the county as pandemic fears begin to wane has hit the farming community particularly hard.

“If you're a new farmer who is looking to start a business or grow your smaller farming business and you wanted to buy land, land is incredibly expensive," said Moulton. "You can't just go out and buy open land, particularly now where people are buying it and building homes. You know, all the real estate prices have skyrocketed.”

With that theme in mind, Berkshire Grown will shepherd Lebeaux around South County to get a sense of the ways land ownership concerns impact local farmers.

“We’re starting with Colfax Farm in Alford, which is owned by Molly Comstock," said Moulton. "It's about three acres on land that was previously a dairy farm. And she's had a really great relationship with the farmer who owns that land. Just, things have changed and she needs to find a different place to farm starting next season.”

Comstock leaves after four seasons’ worth of investment in the land.

“She's done a ton of weed control without any sort of herbicides," continued Moulton. "And she's grown her farm in four years. So leaving that, she's got to start all over. She's also been able to use the old dairy barn for her CSA pickup and to store supplies. She set up a little on-farm store within the old dairy barn. She built a greenhouse across the street, all of that. Now she has to find a new spot because she doesn't own her land.”

The second stop will be Indian Line Farm in South Egremont, where the farmers have a 99-year lease on land owned by a community land trust.

“They actually got one of the food security infrastructure grants from the state of Massachusetts and use it to make a lot of barn improvements that will allow them to improve their storage and wash pack facilities," said Moulton. "So we're also going to look at that barn improvement, you know, so what does it mean when you have a 99-year lease on land, but you're also improving buildings that you own the building, but not the land under it. You know, it's a real commitment from the community and to the community in terms of food and use of land and preservation of the land.”

The back half of the tour will be of pastures used by Off The Shelf Farm and Hidden Mountain Farm in and around New Marlborough, Mill River and Great Barrington.

“One of the farmers, Christian Stovall of Hidden Mountain Farm, bases his farm in New Marlborough," said Moulton. "He was able to build a small barn on his family land, but he doesn't have enough land to move all of his lambs around. So he moves those lambs between about four different spots in the area. So we'll meet with him and go to visit some of those spots and talk to him about what that means in terms of how it limits his ability to grow his business- And also how it has enabled him to start his business, because of these people allowing him to graze animals on their land.”

Off The Shelf Farm focuses on chickens.

“These big chicken mobiles, they have to move them before dawn because they could block traffic and it would also upset the chickens to be amongst too much noise," explained Moulton. "They’ll move them from pasture to pasture. And it gives back to the land. All that manure helps build up the soil again, but it also allows them to grow their business. But again, they can only grow so far, because they don't have a consistent ownership of land. They don't know that they'll always have this piece of land, they don't have necessarily a lease agreement with a farmer. So if something goes wrong, they might have to suddenly turn and find a different place to pasture their chickens or their sheep.”

Massachusetts Agricultural Commissioner John Lebeaux will tour the four Berkshires farms throughout Tuesday.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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