Did you know that one of the largest certified organic dairy farms in Massachusetts is right here in the Berkshires? Balsam Hill Farm in Sheffield is home to a herd of more than 500 cows – a long way from where it started!
Owner and farmer Morven Allen got started in dairy farming at the former Project Native land, now home to North Plain Farm, on Route 41 in Housatonic. He started with 2 cows in the old dairy barn there about 30 years ago, later expanding his operation to Alford. Fifteen years ago, he purchased the farm in Sheffield that is now his home base. “But that would be tough to do now”, he told us, explaining that if he were starting now, he probably wouldn’t be able to break into the business: “it’s so hard to get land and every year it gets worse.” And although Allen owns 200 acres, land continues to be an issue: he farms 1200 acres, which means that he’s leasing the vast majority of land that he’s using and that he does a lot of driving around South County to get to the different parcels he farms. Like many dairy farmers in the region, he’d like to purchase more land, but there’s a shortage of land available for sale, and much of what is currently being farmed remains at risk to housing development.
Fortunately, the state has made efforts to protect some of that farmland, including Morven’s. Through the Massachusetts Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program (APR), the state’s department of agriculture pays farmland owners the difference between the “fair market value” and the “agricultural value” of their land – essentially buying the development rights to the land. In exchange, there is a permanent restriction on the property that prohibits its use for any activities that will degrade its agricultural viability. The program produces two valuable outcomes: farmland is preserved as agricultural land in perpetuity and the price of the land is maintained at a level that can be supported by the land’s agricultural uses – that is, it remains affordable to farmers who are farming it.
The Massachusetts’ APR program, which was created by the state legislature in 1977, was the first in the U.S. and has since been a model upon which many other states have built their programs. To date, the Massachusetts APR program has permanently protected over 906 farms and a total land area of over 73,163 acres statewide. Here in the Berkshires, the program has been a great resource for farmers in Berkshire County (and a boon for the rest of us, who enjoy the region’s rural landscape), but can’t come close to protecting all of the at-risk land. As Morven put it, “It’s a fabulous program; it’s too bad they don’t have more money in their budget.”
During our visit to the farm last fall, we spent a while standing outside the calf barn on Hewins Street, chatting with Morven about all sorts of things. Every ten or fifteen minutes, a truck would drive by and honk its horn, and Morven would look up and wave. It was one of Morven’s neighbors – Sheffield is home to several dairy farms – driving back and forth with truckloads of manure to spread across their assorted fields, to fertilize the soil where they’d be growing this year’s hay and feed for the cows. The conversation turned to the local dairy community, and the divide that sometimes exists between those oriented towards “local” and “sustainable” farming and those engaged in conventional farming. It’s a divide that doesn’t seem to exist for Morven and his neighbors, who have made different choices about what they think is the best way to farm, but who continue to respect and support each other as farmers and neighbors. “Every farmer I know loves what they do,” he observed, reflecting on his colleagues. And he reminded us of an important fact: that dairy farmers put a lot of money into the local economy – not just into ag infrastructure, which they are vital in supporting, but into local businesses, too, and that activity helps keep rural communities alive. Based upon all of the projects we saw underway or recently completed while at the farm, we can vouch that Morven has been giving plenty of business to the lumberyard and other local suppliers!
Like most dairy farmers in the Northeast, Allen does not sell his product directly to consumers in the “local food” scene – but much of his milk is still being consumed regionally. For the past 8 years, Balsam Hill has been a member of Organic Valley, an organic dairy co-op that aggregates milk from multiple farmers in the region, bottles it at regional processing facilities, and then redistributes it, much of it in the region where it was produced. This model is not unique to Organic Valley – most of the milk consumed in Massachusetts has been produced by farmers here in Mass or nearby in New York and Vermont. The relationship with Organic Valley has been a good one for Balsam Hill. “Organic Valley is fantastic” Allen said, “they really care about the farmer. It’s a true co-op.” One of the ways Organic Valley shows this commitment to farmers? They won’t cut the prices paid to farmers – a chronic problem in the conventional dairy industry, where volatile market pricing and the high cost of production in the Northeast means that there are years when farmers earn less for their milk than it cost them to produce it. But at Organic Valley, farmers earn a steady price for their product, which means they can manage their business accordingly and plan for the future, knowing – in one small area, at least – what’s coming. Still, there’s one area where Morven wishes the system looked a little different: “I believe in a regional food system. In a perfect system, we’d have a little bottling plant here in South County and the milk wouldn’t leave the county.”