WILLIAMSTOWN — Here’s the dirty little secret about farming in the Berkshires: Those who grow food to feed their neighbors may be facing economic insecurity — at least part of the year.
“Many farmers are on SNAP,” said Margaret Moulton, executive director of Berkshire Grown, which supports local farmers, referring to the government’s Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. “Many farmers have a second source of income, and I don’t mean trust fund income: I mean a second job.”
Take Brian Cole. He runs Bigfoot Farm from a 1-acre plot in Williamstown, where he grows about 40 varieties of vegetables. He also delivers produce to the Williamstown Food Pantry and is paid to do so through a government grant.
Cole decided to strike out on his own six years ago after working as a farmhand.
“If I was going to make $15 an hour, I might as well make $15 an hour for myself, so then I started this thing,” said Cole, who graduated from Williams College and lives in Williamstown.
In a deliberate decision, he went to New York City during the off-season last winter to work in a restaurant kitchen. This summer, as he’s facing the end of a five-year lease on his piece of green, he’s thinking hard about whether to renew. At 34, he’s not sure the farming lifestyle will be compatible with his hope of raising a family, or that it will actually support one.
Cole’s farm was one of three showcased in a tour that Berkshire Grown hosted Tuesday for Ashley Randle, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, her staff and others. What emerged in the conversations with the farmers was their devotion to feeding their communities, their challenges and what they think can be done to help make farming more sustainable and attractive to newcomers.
IT STARTS WITH LAND
Cole’s initial search for a place to grow vegetables was tough. Hay land was spoken for and Williamstown homeowners with large lawns, who were initially enthusiastic about supporting a farmer, quickly became chilly to the idea of leasing when he told them he would need water, planned to erect a high tunnel and would be hanging around a lot of the summer, including on weekends.
In some ways, Cole found an ideal situation for someone just getting started: low risk, low cost and a beautiful 1-acre plot, belonging to a landlord with whom he gets along. He gets health insurance through the state, for which he is grateful.
He also has loyal customers at the Williamstown Farmers Market willing to pay for his artichokes and colorful swiss chard. He’s leasing land for $600 a year and pays an additional $50 a month for access to water, but he has no electricity and trucks the vegetables home to a walk-in cooler in his yard.
Cole’s model of selling directly to consumers is part of a larger trend in Massachusetts. The state ranked fifth in the nation for direct sales to consumers in 2017, with more than $100 million in sales and third in the nation for direct sales per farm, at $55,384, according to the MDAR. Direct market sales accounted for 21.1 percent of the state’s total sales of agricultural products, the highest percentage in the country.
HOUSING CRISIS HITS FARMERS TOO
The 500-acre farm in Williamstown is short of labor by about three people. It has 12 on the payroll now.
“Finding people who have experience milking is becoming more and more difficult, but also finding people who can afford to live in this area who we can pay, is very difficult,” she said. “So I see the affordable housing crisis as being a key part in why a lot of businesses are having trouble hiring people.”
Massachusetts has the fifth-highest cost of living in the nation, according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and third-highest in median housing price.
Halpin-Healy tries to work fast, but she’s juggling different tasks, including payroll and stocking the onsite farm store.
“I had to train someone on the farmers market last week so that adds 12 hours to my week,” she said.
Cricket Creek is not alone. At Many Forks Farm in Clarksburg, labor came up as an issue as well, when Randle asked Many Forks’ Sharon Wyrrick about her key challenge.
“The typical answer,” she quipped, chuckling. “Getting everything done.”
Wyrrick paused and continued.
“I think that one question I’ve asked myself over these 12 years is how we can build a local or regional farm labor force,” she said. “And I think it’s a big cultural question too, where that pursuit is valued by the culture because it isn’t always. I don’t have any answers or ideas.”
A COMMITMENT TO EQUITY
Wyrrick started her farm as a second career in 2012. She had moved to the Berkshires to remarry and had dreamed of farming since she was 18. A centerpiece of her plan was to offer Community Supported Agriculture shares to people who would not ordinarily be able to afford them.
“We use either the funds raised by Hoosac Harvest or the shares that are paid for by [Berkshire Grown’s] Share the Bounty to have shares at a reduced cost,” Wyrrick said, typically at 50 percent of the cost. She said a little more than a quarter of her 85 CSA shares are subsidized through SNAP.
“Another goal of making the CSA shares affordable was also for me to create a situation where those individuals were just part of our farm community,” she said. From the start, she received SNAP certification, and later participated in a CSA SNAP pilot program, which has expanded. “And there’s no differentiation. No one knows who has a subsidized share at our farm.”
Her farm offers produce to Community Health Programs in Adams, for families or individuals who meet certain income and health criteria. She sends produce to the Friendship Center Food Pantry, as well.
Today there are more than 200 farmers markets, 100 farm stands and more than 400 farmers who accept SNAP and other food assistance payments, according to MDAR.
Wyrrick began farming just 2 acres in 2012. Eventually, she purchased the 7.5-acre farm on River Road and more than doubled her holdings to close to 19 acres in 2021. That was important to her as she considered a succession plan for the farm.
During the tour, Wyrrick showed aspects of the farm that she was able to add through grants, including a basement washing station and a commercial kitchen. Grants have also paid for some of her equipment.
Cole also received grant funding, to put in a high tunnel — and a local farmer’s award helped him buy some equipment.
“If you’re not a land-owning farmer, then your nest egg is not your land,” he said. “Your nest egg is literally nothing.”
Different grant opportunities would be available to him if he were a land-owning farmer.
“If I owned 50 acres, my property tax basis on that 50 acres of ag land would be really low,” he said. “It wouldn’t cost me that much to own it. But there’s more grant opportunities. I would have land security. I could potentially lease that land to other farmers who are interested. There’s a lot more opportunity.”
Nationally, the average farm real estate value is $3,160 per acre. In Massachusetts, the figure is $11,300, according to the state.
“Land access is hard,” he said. “We can be really interested in saving farms that exist, because there aren’t that many that exist. … But I think even more important is making it insanely easy for someone to start a farm business.”
He said the state should enroll as much land in the state’s agricultural preservation restriction as possible and encourage local land trusts to put agricultural-friendly conservation restrictions on parcels, as well.
“I’m not quite sure how else that would work, but make it so that starting a farm business is like super attractive to someone,” he said, adding that farms will fail and that it’s normal for businesses to fail. “We need to incentivize people to want to do this.”
Randle said the state has a goal to protect more farmland. Across the state there are over 75,000 acres at 950 farms that are protected under agricultural preservation restriction.
With the average age of farmers in 2017 in Massachusetts at 59.1 years old, a lot of land under agricultural preservation restriction will be changing hands in the next five to 10 years, Randle said. One of her goals is to make sure that younger farmers are able to use that land.
After viewing the farms, Randle articulated her hope to support both existing and new farmers.
“Trying to find that next generation and create that pipeline of ag enthusiasts is something that’s really a priority for me,” she said.
While Cole worries about his ability to save for retirement, for now he’s still enjoying his work.
“The longer I do this,” he said, “the more I realize, if I could farm and I didn’t have any farm expenses, things would be pretty dope.”