How the Berkshires’ local farm and food communities are faring during challenging times – and ways our community can help them thrive
By Elisa Spungen Bildner / Special to the BJV
Photograph of Chef Brian Alberg of The Break Room in North Adams by Robert Bildner
As Jews, we’re known as The People of the Book, but, let’s face it, we’re also The People Who Love to Eat. Indeed, as one of our Books says, in this case the Talmud, “there can be no joy without food or drink.”
And in the Berkshires, we Jews are blessed with a plethora of small family farms and farm to table restaurants that work mightily to supply us with good — local — food that brings us that joy. But it hasn’t been easy for farmers and restaurateurs this year, and just how hard it’s been is the subject of this article.
Restaurants have been the hardest hit, and so have farmers who relied heavily on supplying them. But for all farmers, whether they sold directly to consumers or wholesale, “everyone had to reassess their markets,” says Margaret Moulton, executive director of Berkshire Grown, which supports and promotes local agriculture.
Even in non-pandemic times, farmers must be adaptable folks. As one farmer, John Primmer, who with his wife, Joy, owns Wildstone Farm in Pownal, VT, says, pivoting — to use the Pandemic Word of the Year — is what farmers always do. Responding to COVID, he says, is a lot like dealing with the weather, perhaps a bit more extreme. ”You’re always making changes. We had a lot of practice we didn’t realize.”
And that practice clearly paid off. Moulton says that as of January, she had not heard of any farms that closed “in our membership area” and instead has watched the farming community “make it past those rocky shoals” by switching to selling online, home delivery, creating safe environments for customer pick-up, opening farm stores, and embracing farmers markets they might not have relied on previously (Berkshire Grown sponsors winter markets). Many farms have also increased the number of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares they offer.
Farms may be surviving, but the challenges they face should not be underestimated. “I really feel for farmers,” says Moulton. “They do all their business planning, care for everything, then come in at the end of the day, and update their ecommerce. That wasn’t what they bargained for when they went into farming.” One of the most common requests for help Berkshire Grown receives is for technical assistance. Those farmers, she says, who know how to use social media, build an engaging website, and have a strong email list have an easier time.
John Primmer jokes that “for a couple of older folks” who are not “techie people,” he and his wife managed to use the Internet for online ordering, adapted to curbside pickup at the farmers market, and when they could open for in-person business, adopted safety protocols. Plus, they landed a grant to purchase software for their online CSA ordering, which they plan to continue this spring. Both in their 60s, the Primmers decided to forego inside markets. ”Why take the chance,” John asks.
They’ve been gratified by the customer response. “People wanted to support their local farmer,” he says.
Sustaining Public Support
Certainly, the pandemic alerted consumers that relying on food shipped from California and elsewhere could be precarious. But post-pandemic, and as the scarcity on grocery shelves becomes a thing of the past, will consumers remember? Will they keep supporting Berkshire farmers?
Farmers worry about this, even though the reasons to support local products go beyond using them as a back-up plan during a pandemic — area farms preserve open space, improve the environment through sustainable farming methods, promote biodiversity, contribute to the local economy, and offer fresher, better-tasting food that retains nutrients as a result of less travel. Small family farms also are more likely to treat animals humanely.
One farmer concerned about the public’s continued support of local farms is Dominic Palumbo of Moon In The Pond Farm in Sheffield, who massively ramped up and reconfigured his operation to meet the increased demand. He acknowledges that the pandemic-induced rush to support farmers like him may be “too steep a learning curve to stick,” and in fact, he has seen his curbside pickup numbers decline from 15 a day at its height to two a week. But, he warns, “the reality is if you want these things in the future you have to maintain them. You can’t think that the groovy local farm is going to be there the next time things get tough unless they can support themselves between now and then.” Palumbo, by the way, urged consumers to support small Berkshire farms long before the pandemic as a way to keep people fed if climate change makes it difficult to obtain agricultural products from elsewhere.
Like farmers Palumbo and Primmer, Michael Gallagher, owner of Square Roots Farm in Lanesboro with his wife Ashley Amsden, has been inundated. “We’ve sold all we produced and more,” he says, adding that they planned to open a farm store, but found that they didn’t have enough of their products left. When I caught Gallagher on his phone, he was driving between PIttsfield and Great Barrington making wholesale as well as home deliveries, which he started during the pandemic.
Another pandemic hurdle Gallagher cites is the difficulty of finding child care and safely bringing on new employees during this time, which other farmers also mentioned. He, too, is hoping his customers don’t have “short memories. People aren’t going to remember that they can’t trust Big Ag.” But he’s also optimistic that customers he’s added will realize the benefits of buying local. He notes that one woman he was delivering to the day we spoke first showed up in April. “She’s stuck with it. She had no idea there were farms around you could buy from.”
Part of the increased demand may result from second home owners who have stayed in the Berkshires this year. As Ethan Thaler-Null, farm manager of Abode Farm in New Lebanon, NY, asks, are the farm’s increased sales a result of “folks with more means who have moved to the area or are spending more time here? Or are people changing their buying habits?” Abode’s response to the pandemic, especially when restaurant sales declined, was to expand its CSA program (it just opened its summer 2021 signups). Joining a CSA, he says, is a great way to support local agriculture — and people who need food. At Abode, members can subsidize shares for those in lower-income brackets — the farm offered 30 last year. The farm’s large acreage makes this an easy pivot for Abode, which also specializes in fall crops and has great winter storage. (By the way, besides Abode, many farms offer products nine months or more a year.)
If you choose not to join a CSA or buy directly from farmers, you can still support small family farms by opting for local products in supermarkets, says Moulton of Berkshire Grown. Read the labels under products that denote origins. “Where is this cheese or milk from? Who grew this kale? The smallest places to even large supermarkets like Big Y will name the farmer.”
Chomping to Go Out Chomping
If farmers have had to rev up to meet the increased demand for local, a demand they ruefully acknowledge might not continue, for restaurateurs, the pandemic pivot, which has usually meant increasing takeout, limiting or reconfiguring indoor dining, and when possible, offering outdoor dining, has been tougher.
Kate Abbott is the creator of an online guide to the Berkshires (btwberkshires.com) who has followed the status of local restaurants. She says that many restaurants have become “nervous” and have taken a break, at least for the winter, from both takeout and indoor dining. Others that seem to have permanently closed, she says, perhaps will find different locations later. (1Berkshire.com provides an online listing of the status of area restaurants on its COVID Resources page.)
Yet there is optimism even during this first financial quarter of the year, a tough stretch for restaurateurs in non-pandemic times. Steven Clark, vice president for government affairs for the statewide Massachusetts Restaurant Association (MRA), says that by April, more people will be vaccinated and “consumers will just be chomping to go out.” He feels that business “will come back gangbusters,” born out by historical trends. “Generally when we come out of recessions, the first place consumers spend money is in restaurants.”
There are ways customers can support local farm table and other restaurants. “Patronize, patronize,” Clark says. “You’re working from home. You’re done at 5. Go out and eat. Tip your servers, staffers. Maybe you’re getting takeout and not buying a dessert or drink.” Consider tipping on that amount as well.
Nancy Thomas, co-founder and proprietor of Mezze Bistro + Bar in Williamstown, is one of two area representatives (with Mark Firth of Prairie Whale in Great Barrington) of a new organization, Massachusetts Restaurants United, that works with the MRA but is geared to ensuring the survival of independent restaurateurs. She also urges customers to regularly take out if they can afford it, and to consider gifting takeout meals to older people or folks who’ve been helpful during the pandemic. Mezze offers Thursday through Sunday takeout and, as of January, socially-distanced indoor dining on Friday and Saturday.
Despite the challenges, Thomas still sees a silver lining, and quotes Winston Churchill: “An optimist sees an opportunity in every calamity; a pessimist sees a calamity in every opportunity.” While her earnings this year were well below 2019 totals (her catering operation was also sidelined by the virus), she found ways to about break even. Thomas learned to be more efficient serving guests inside and expanded the restaurant’s software program for takeout. And increased reliance on takeout, she says, even upped customer contact since people often phone for help with the form, which provides an opportunity to ask for feedback.
At the same time, Thomas hopes customers understand hers and other restaurants’ situation. “The nuances of takeout have been hard. We’re asking for a deep breath and a little extra time to get things right. Mezze is also trying not to have too many people in the building.” And, of course, she notes, the staff is wearing masks eight hours a day.
Joining Thomas, Chef Brian Alberg, who heads The Break Room at Greylock Works in North Adams (and who, full disclosure, collaborated with Rob Bildner and me on The Berkshires Farm Table Cookbook), and Michael Marcus, owner of Bizen Gourmet Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar in Great Barrington, bask in the community support they’ve received.
Alberg appreciates the many customers who order takeout once a week, as well as patrons who just come in for pastry and coffee. He appreciates the second home owners who have stayed around during a time they’re usually not here. Like Mezze, he’s lucky to have a lot of space — the restaurant is in a former cotton-spinning mill with high ceilings, tons of natural light and hallways where guests can sit at tables easily 10 to 15 feet apart. Opening a restaurant mid-pandemic as Alberg did is an impressive feat, but he met the challenge by creating a menu both easy on the kitchen staff and appealing to the customer. For those ordering takeout, the menu is composed of dishes that travel well and are ready to heat – for example, Alberg chose risotto rather than pasta, quiche instead of Eggs Benedict, and came up with a curried chicken and chickpea dish with pilaf that’s still aesthetically pleasing when it gets home. Plus, he continues to feature a menu that highlights regional products, like butternut squash from nearby Peace Valley Farm in Williamstown.
Marcus of Bizen says, that he, too, has an “attitude of gratitude. I tell people on the phone ‘thank you for your support.’” His customers are likewise appreciative they can still order Japanese hamachi, snapper, and jackfish and that he can still source organic, which is a cornerstone of his philosophy. While he normally sources as much local as possible, Marcus says it’s harder to get, not only because of winter but because he grows many of his own ingredients — kale, zucchini, kabocha squash — at other times of the year.
He says his persistence helped him stay open from the beginning of the pandemic, from last March 16, hyperfocusing on his mission to feed the public, and at another level, “give them comfort and solace.” Yet Marcus was keenly aware that “we were one sick person away from closing,” noting that staying open has required “strict discipline” on his part and that of his staff. “The vulnerability of the staff,” Marcus says,” is a real and present danger.” Besides takeout, Bizen offers indoor dining, as of this writing, at 25% capacity, with patrons seated in private kaiseki rooms furnished with air purifiers.
In pre-pandemic days, Marcus was commonly seen kibitzing with customers at the sushi bar but “my new now is conversation on a phone.” As much as conversation, he misses the opportunity to present food as aesthetically as he would like. A potter who founded Bizen on the principle of using his ceramics to serve food, he’s had to morph from “ceramics to paper in a heartbeat.” He’s concerned that if people bring food home “will it still have any feast of the eyes?” Like his colleagues, he’s worked to present take out as best as possible while minimizing plastic and using no-bleach paper.
As with farming, the restaurant business is likely to be permanently changed as a result of the pandemic. And it’s not a bad thing, says the MRA’s Clark. For example, he says, there will likely be more opportunities for outdoor dining. “A lot of cities and towns saw that it worked.”
The Berkshires Farm Table Cookbook was named New England Cookbook of the Year by The Readable Feast, in 2020. Published by The Countryman Press/W.W. Norton & Company, it is available for purchase at independent bookstores and other shops throughout the Berkshires, as well as through Amazon.
For more about farms and food in the Berkshires and beyond, visit Rob and Elisa's website at berkshiresandbeyond.com.