Meet a few Berkshire Grown members, for a complete listing of all Berkshire Grown professional members, check out Map-o-licious!
by Anthony Raduazo
“Listen,” Damon Clift says as he holds a hand to the back of his ear, “You can’t hear a thing out here.” He pauses for a moment, basking in the silence. “That’s why we decided to leave the city.” Less than five years ago, Damon Clift and Diane Creed were living in Queens, New York, before they gave it all up – the sirens, the horns, the roar of traffic – to begin an entirely new life. Hawk Dance Farm is, in almost every aspect, the polar opposite of New York City. Situated in the rural countryside of Hillsdale, New York, the silence that pervades the place is not the only indicator of its seclusion – the miles of dirt road that lead to the farm almost demand a four- wheel drive vehicle, even in good weather.
It is difficult to imagine these two living in the city now. Despite having been reared in New York City, Damon and Diane both appear remarkably at home amidst the solitude. Before they chose to come to the country, Damon was a house painter, while Diane worked as a veterinary technician and dog-sitter.
“We planned this for 15 years in Queens,” says Damon of the decision to leave the city life behind. Inspired by the literature of counter-culture figures like Helen and Scott Nearing and Elliot Coleman, farming began as an idealistic dream for Damon and Diane. “We always wanted to be in the country,” Diane says. While they gradually set aside money, they attended Northeast Organic Farming Association events in Queens and continued to study sustainable farming literature.
Finally, in 2007, Damon and Diane found themselves in an ideal financial situation to make their dream a reality. Damon spent the next two years apprenticing at a number of New York farms, including Common Ground Farm in Wappingers Falls and Oak Grove Farm in Clinton Corners before he and Diane purchased the picturesque piece of property in Hillsdale. Escaping the city, however, would prove to be just the first of many difficulties that they would face.
The tomato blight of 2009 rendered months of hard labor worthless for many farms in the northeast and Hawk Dance Farm proved to be no exception. The loss of their tomato crop was a warningof additional challenges to come. Damon and Diane found it incredibly difficult in their first year to break into already established markets with local restaurants and food distributors. “We had everything, everything against us,” says Damon.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for Hawk Dance Farm, however, has stemmed from a lack of local awareness and support. As Damon notes, “At farmers’ markets people don’t realize how much labor and time is put into each of our products, the American public has demanded that food be cheap.”
Despite many obstacles, Damon and Diane have stuck to their principles. They established Hawk Dance Farm in 2008 with a commitment to producing high- quality flowers, herbs, and vegetables in a sustainable and conscientious manner. As a certified naturally grown farm, they continue to fulfill this promise. “We use the vegan-organic approach as we believe that it is more humane and natural,” says Damon. In an era dominated by agribusinesses and factory farms, such a commitment seems like a novel concept.
by Gina Iannitelli
At Mighty Food Farm in Pownal, VT family dogs run freely and playfully around the farmhands, who are laughing and joking as they load produce into a truck. The workers are led by the farm’s owner, Lisa MacDougall, an energetic woman in her late twenties. “I really, really love my farm crew,” she says. “They are like my family.”
MacDougall has been the head of Mighty Food Farm, which is certified organic, from the beginning five years ago. She came to the farm after apprenticing on two farms in central Massachusetts. When asked if it is difficult to keep her produce, which ranges from “artichokes to zucchini,” completely organic, replies adamantly, “this is the only type of farming that I know of…and quality is one of the biggest issues.” The local community clearly supports her mission, as Mighty Food has a thriving CSA and Farmers Markets in both Bennington and Dorset, VT.
She points out that the quality of life, however, “is a main issue.” Even for someone so young, farming strains her body. Furthermore, she says that it is difficult to get to nearby networking events, never mind social events, since she has to tend to the farm as well as do housework.
Lisa’s hard work is paying off. In addition to the large variety of CSA produce, Mighty Food also strives to provide the community with almost year-round availability in storage crops, winter greens, and greenhouse produce. They also support nearby farms in Vermont and New York by selling their cheeses, yogurt, and breads in the CSA room. They grow and sell “pretty much the gamut,” says MacDougall. Despite the cornucopia of choice, MacDougall’s heart undoubtedly belongs to the fruits and veggies of the farm: “I love produce!”she says. The land currently holds about 17 acres of crops, with 25 acres in cultivation. There is not much waste as the leftover crops are either composted or donated to local food banks. MacDougall has an open mind about expansion goals: “I want to become more diverse with animals,” she says, pointing out that the purchase of pigs would help resolve the issue of leftover produce.
Mighty Food Farm is the product of a handful of individuals, led by MacDougall, who believe strongly in the quality and accessibility of locally grown food. “I farm for myself and I farm for my community,” MacDougall says, looking out at the farm’s expanse of land and crops.
by Anthony Raduazo
Driving up the gravel road to Sweet Brook Farm, in Williamstown, one is immediately struck by its beauty. Directly to the east looms Mount Greylock; small groves of sugar maple and paper birch dot a landscape of rolling pasture. The dense forest that encloses the farm gives the place a comforting sense of seclusion. If not for the hum of a diesel tractor in the distance, it would be easy to feel wonderfully alone here.
At first glance, Sweet Brook Farm epitomizes the very ideal of traditional New England pastoral life. That is, until you notice the odd-looking animals grazing in the distance. With their long, elegant necks, slender legs, and shaggy bodies, the creatures look different from the standard bovine in Berkshire County. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that they are not cattle at all – they are alpaca.
Beth Phelps and her husband, Pete, have been raising alpaca since 2006. After being laid off from her managerial position at AT&T, Beth felt that a drastic change was in order. Sweet Brook Farm initially began as a small-scale vegetable operation, selling primarily at the Williamstown Farmers’ Market. Beth, however, was not content “just watching the grass grow.” Interested in fiber animals, Beth began researching alpaca after seeing a television ad on the alpaca industry. She arranged for a visit to an alpaca farm in Salem, Massachusetts where she “fell in love with the animals immediately.”
Sweet Brook Farm is now selling alpaca yarn that is nationally renowned for its consistency and texture. Mimi, the Phelpses’ most prized animal, has won multiple championships at the prestigious North American Alpaca Show. Mimi is just one of nearly a dozen award-winning alpacas in the Phelps’ possession. Beth and Pete sell the alpaca yarn and clothing at local farmers’ markets and at their recently opened farm store.
The success that the Phelpses have had with alpaca has not dissuaded them from entering other markets. In 2010, Pete Phelps decided to use his training as a chemist to start maple-syrup production. “It was sort of a midlife crisis for my husband,” Beth explains, laughing. Pete’s father, Norris, had run an old sugarhouse on the farm while he was alive. She continues, “It was really a childhood dream of Pete’s.”
The state-of-the-art sugaring facility that Beth shows off looks nothing like the traditional sugarhouse that Norris used. Beth patiently describes the functions of the numerous tubes and apparatuses that lead to a series of enormous silver cauldrons where the maple syrup is finally stored. Last year, the Phelpses produced 1,300 gallons of maple syrup. This year, they expect to make 1,600 gallons.
Currently, Sweet Brook is not selling all the maple that it produces, but Beth and Pete remain optimistic that there is demand for products like maple candies and maple-glazed nuts as corporate or seasonal gifts. They also hope to venture into agrotourism. Beginning this summer, Sweet Brook Farm will offer horse-drawn wagon rides as well as sugarhouse tours to visitors. Such a move reflects a broader trend among Berkshire County farmers toward highly specialized, niche markets.
The Phelps family is now in its ninth generation of farming in Williamstown. Sweet Brook Farm probably looks a lot different than when Cassius Phelps, Pete’s great-grandfather, first purchased the land. There were certainly no alpacas roaming the property. Yet, its very existence is a story of persistence. Farmers from all periods of history were forced to adapt to changing economic and social climates to survive. In the 21st century, the Phelpses are doing just that.
by Nichole Calero
Visiting all of Community Cooperative Farm requires a small tour of Southern Berkshire County- not because the farm itself is so large (less than 20 acres), but because it is scattered throughout the region. In turn the myriad locations lead to variety: pigs, chickens, and berries are raised on Mt. Washington; a 3 sisters garden (beans, corn, and squash) is under development in Hartsville; along Lime Kiln Road in Sheffield four acres are dedicated to vegetables and their farm stand shares a location with Torrico Electric on Route 7 in Sheffield. Far flung as it may be, the farmers at Community Cooperative have a common vision for their efforts.
“We’re building a farm for the future” says Justin Torrico, one of its founding farmers. While this phrase sounds ultramodern, in this case it means a return to traditional farming methods. They raise heritage breed animals, and use heirloom and nonhybrid seeds so they can save them for the next season. They raise closed cycle crops in an organic, bio-intensive manner to preserve and add to the land. Torrico was proud to tell me that they strive to keep petroleum out of their fields and had used a tractor for a total of four hours this season.
Without modern machinery a lot of person power is required to till, plant, weed, and harvest. At first this task belonged to Torrico, Tashiana Colston, and Mael Raoult, who began the farm almost two years ago. Joined by friends from college and other idealistic young farmers, the roster at Community Cooperative is up to 10 this summer. In this way their farm gives another nod to bygone days while retaining forward momentum. Within their ranks there is no hierarchy, and everything is done by consensus; they look beyond the fields into the realm of social justice and community.
As their number grows so does their ability to work the land and increase their yield. In their first season last year they sold 10 CSA shares, up to 25 this year. They hope to offer 100 shares in the future. Until they have enough shares for all, they can be found at the Nutrition Center on Wednesdays, CHP on Thursdays, or the Sheffield Farmer’s Market on Fridays, where you can meet this intrepid group who seek to improve the land, our food, and our future by remembering our past.
by Anthony Raduazo
photo by Gina Iannitelli
When asked why he had decided to start farming, Michael Gallagher’s face turns quizzical. He appears to be at a loss for words. His partner, Ashley Amsden, replies, smiling, “You know someone really loves doing something when they can’t explain why they do it.”
The love that Gallagher and Amsden share for farming is immediately apparent. Despite a long day of hard labor, the faces of the two brim with optimism and hope. “It is meaningful work that is emotionally, physically, and intellectually challenging,” Gallagher finally responds.
Gallagher, a native of Cheshire, first got a taste of farm life in high school when he used to bail hay for local farms in Lanesboro. But, as he puts it, “I got away from it. I didn’t think I could make any money at it.” After graduating with degrees in Russian and Biology at Williams College, Gallagher spent a few years teaching high school math with the Mississippi Teacher Corps. Dissatisfied with the profession, Gallagher’s experience ultimately made him reconsider farming as a career.
In 2009, Gallagher and Amsden met as apprentices on the same farm in Vermont. The two began Square Roots Farm, a small sustainable farm in Clarksburg, just over a year ago. They are not only the owners of one of Berkshire County’s youngest farms – they are also two of Berkshire County’s youngest farmers. At twenty-seven, Gallagher and Amsden are not the typical farmers in Berkshire County.
If the couple’s age and experience has put them at any disadvantage, it has not shown. This season, Square Roots Farm sold 50 CSA shares in a matter of weeks, a dramatic increase from the 20 sold in their first season. They also do business with high-end restaurants in the North Adams area such as Gramercy Bistro and The Elf Parlor.
“We’re selling everything we produce,” says Gallagher. Currently that includes greens, turkeys, broilers, hogs, and beef. The CSA model has proven essential to the farm’s success. The 20 shares sold in their first growing season provided Gallagher and Amsden with the necessary cash to lease the piece of land on which Square Roots Farm sits. It has also benefitted the local community. Hoosac Harvest subsidizes 20% of the farm’s shares in an effort to make locally grown food more accessible to underprivileged consumers in North Adams and Clarksburg. “We wanted to include as much of the community as possible,” Gallagher notes.
Despite their success, the couple wants to do more. They intend to increase their beef herd, and to begin producing eggs and winter salad greens. Recently, Gallagher and Amsden received a state grant to build a greenhouse on the southern end of their property. While a skeletal frame is all that currently exists in the spot today, Ashley and Michael hope that, with its completion in a few months, the greenhouse will bring in additional revenue in the slow winter months.
“We want modest growth,” Amsden says. They do not intend to sell more than 100 CSA shares in future seasons and hope to be able to sustain their farm without having to hire additional labor.
As Gallagher leads his guests through neat rows of potatoes, the couple’s resolve to remain small-scale becomes immediately comprehensible – the two are committed to producing high quality food in a conscientious and humane manner. He spots a cluster of potato beetles, stooping to brush them off the plants’ delicate leaves. Gallagher continues walking for a moment then stops short, noticing another batch of the pesky critters. Forgetting that he is not alone, he becomes totally absorbed with his work. Ashley, still aware of her guests’ presence, softly chides, “We’ll get back to this later Michael.” “All right,” Gallagher grumbles. He tries to maintain a smile throughout the rest of the visit, but it’s obvious – he has potatoes on his mind.