Samantha Murray ’14 had never before set foot on a farm. Yet at one point this summer the beach-loving, Southern California native found herself in a field, facing down 50 sheep who’d come barreling over a hill in her direction.
“We always know we’re in for an adventure,” says Murray, one of four students spending the summer trekking all over North Berkshire County to interview farmers for Keep Berkshire Farming, part of a county-wide initiative that will form the basis for a community food systems plan.
The two-year effort in North Berkshire, coordinated by Sarah Gardner, associate director of the college’s Center for Environmental Studies (CES), involves surveying residents, farmers, restaurateurs, distributors, food store managers, and institutional purchasers to get a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities they face. Gardner and her students regularly present their findings to agricultural commissions and at other public forums. They’ll also be developing recommendations and strategies to help make regional agriculture more economically viable.
“We ask the farmers how they got into the business,” says David Nolan ’13, who grew up in Williamstown. “More often than not they answer with a grin: ‘By bad luck and being born into it.’
“Our goal,” says Nolan, a philosophy major, “is to understand what has made farming ‘bad luck’ and, if we can, begin to remove the obstacles that threaten the most consistent and consistently productive industry this area has ever seen.”
Gardner, who teaches an environmental planning workshop each year, says Keep Berkshire Farming meshes well with CES’ mission of community-based and experiential learning. Murray, Nolan, and students Emily Ury ’13 and Cary White ’13 say they’ve learned a lot about farming culture, conducting interviews, and public speaking. They’ve also gotten a better understanding of the Berkshire region and its food systems.
“The point,” Gardner says, “is to figure out how to keep farming viable in this region, because it’s really on the edge. When land values increase, we stand to lose a lot of our farmland.”
At bottom, Gardner adds, the central question is: “How do we make a community-based food system so the milk and meat produced here can be consumed here?”