NEW MARLBOROUGH, Mass. — Farming is hard enough without having to worry about losing the very land you farm.
"This year, I've just been hearing a lot...about the lack of access to land, not really related to the pandemic. It just seems to have come up more and more," Executive Director of Berkshire Grown Margaret Moulton said during a tour of Southern Berkshire farms with Agricultural Commissioner John Lebeaux. "So we're trying to give them a sense of what it means to be a farmer without a farm, particularly for a newer younger farmer who doesn't have the wherewithal to buy."
On Tuesday, Lebeaux toured four South County farms to hear their struggles with land availability and having to lease land rather than owning. He visited Colfax Farm in Alford, Indian Line Farm in Egremont and Hidden Mountain Farm, and Off The Shelf Farm in New Marlborough opened its pastures to the tour.
Lebeaux said these sorts of farming issues are not new.
"We particularly see it in areas where there's demand for vacation homes, that really pushes it and certainly Southern Berkshire County lends itself to that," Lebeaux said after speaking to the local farmers. "Today was more of a learning exercise to hear about how folks are managing, renting land, or however they're getting to grow on it. But everyone wants some degree of certainty, whether it's ownership or a long-term lease, and we're hopeful that we can promote that in some way, shape, or form. So today, it's information gathering, and then we'll see if we can implement that into some policies."
Each year, nonprofit advocacy organization Berkshire Grown holds this farm tour to bring light to agricultural issues important to farmers in the area. This year's tour was inspired by Colfax Farm. Owner Molly Comstock farms on a land trust with an expiring lease.
Moulton said this challenge comes in different forms and some farmers utilize different plots of land in some instances free of charge. Although there are savings because some farmers do not have to buy or lease, travel often eats into profit. There is also always a lingering insecurity.
Hidden Mountain Farm produces grass-fed lamb and registered Border Leicester breeding stock. The farm raises between 50 to 100 lambs annually and uses an intensive rotational grazing system.
Owner Christian Stovall has a home base on his family's property, which is about 15 acres. He said it is "not nearly enough land to run a whole business out of." There are about 25 miles between his southernmost location on the Connecticut border to his North Egremont location on the New York border. He has to drive between four towns to access all of his sheep's locations, clocking in at about 2,000 miles of transportation a month.
"Definitely the big challenge is finding people that are excited about grazing and having sheep on their land," he said. "Educating them, and being able to keep an ongoing relationship that's actually set in stone."
Stovall said he wished to have his livestock in close proximity and markets himself by talking to people who have been in the area for a long time in hopes of finding larger plots of land in close proximity to one another.
"What it really comes down to is if my grazing was concentrated, and I could meet more people in New Marlborough and Monterey towns that are really connected right here and close. It would make my life a lot easier," he said.
In the future, Stovall would like to breed more of his own ewes, find a landowner that would allow his Maremma sheepdog Benson to be on the property with the lambs, and secure more serious lease agreements.
Owners of Off The Shelf Farm Anna Houston and Rob Perazzo also spend a lot of their workday traveling to plots of farmland. Houston said that for them, leasing means that everything they do is impermanent and mobile.
For them, there are positives and negatives to the impermanent agreement.
The duo has a positive leasing agreement with property owners in New Marlborough and are happy to work with them as landlords. But they do acknowledge that they don't own the land and if it were to be unavailable to them, they would be in a tough situation.
Houston added that Off The Shelf began without a mortgage, which she believes has been a huge part of their success.
They have 75 grass-fed lambs, 750 pasture-raised meat chickens, and 3,000 pasture-raised egg-laying hens all fed with rotational grazing. The farm gets about 1,300 eggs a week and distributes 75 percent of them to Southern Berkshire County, Walden Local Meat Co. in Boston, and Eataly in New York City.
"It's pretty amazing, the insatiable demand for eggs," she said. "You would not have known it; we didn't know it when we started."
Houston said she and Perazzo dream about someday having a permanent agreement where a formal farmstand can be constructed and open to the public.
"It would be so much more efficient if everything was just right together," she said. "And we want to have people come to the farm and have a retail space and just do way more than what we're doing as far as like engaging with the community."
An additional issue that affects both Hidden Mountain Farm and Off The Shelf Farm is the need to transport water to their locations, which is done with a large tank on the back of a truck.
But leasing land does works for some farmers like those who own Indian Mountain Farm, which was also on the tour. Elizabeth Keen said her family farm is also located on a land trust, but it works for her.
Understanding Colfax Farm's predicament, the land trust, that her farm is on, is reportedly taking the lead on trying to find a location for Comstock.
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