Over the next few issues of Edible Berkshires I anticipate a conversation with you, our readers. I hope to challenge some or all of you at times. Maybe I won’t be up to the task, but it won’t be for lack of trying. I’ll discuss what goes on at Black Queen Angus Farm in Berlin, NY, and my musings on the state of affairs in the political arena as it pertains to farming and agriculture—not just on that farm, which I lease, but in the broader sense of the Berkshire region and nationally too. After all, if we are thinking globally and acting locally, we should keep an eye on the big picture.
Close to home, we run a family farm (Black Queen Angus Farm) and a landscape design/build business (Hartland Designs Inc.). When the economy tanked in 2008– 2009, I suddenly had a tremendous amount of time to focus on the farm, where we raise 100% grass-fed Angus beef and Registered Angus breeding stock. Experience and education on the horticulture and design fronts have lent themselves well to the farming business, mostly through an understanding of soils and site assessment. Because all food is predicated on the qualities or limitations of the environment in which it is raised, these are important understandings.
My family and I live in what we call the Greater Berkshires Area. Berlin, NY, is just over the Massachusetts line, only 14 miles from Williamstown, MA. The bulk of our beef is sold in Massachusetts and nearly all our landscape work is there too.
Historically there was always a lot of coming and going between the communities along this state border. Much of the wool produced in Washington, Rensselaer and Columbia Counties in NY was taken to the numerous mills of Massachusetts; likewise, timber for lumber, paper and charcoal moved east from this area into the Berkshires.
This region was considered one of three vital “bread baskets” during the American Revolution. Why would that be? Principally it was because of the soils. What makes soils good for farming generally has to do with the bedrock upon which those soils rest. The Berkshires region sits upon a limestone base. That limestone base combined with our up-to-now usually moderate to high annual rainfall means we can grow a lot of food in a hurry and that food has a distinct set of flavors and nutrient density when we don’t interfere with plant/soil interactions by applying manmade fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.
Those unique qualities of nutrient availability in the soils, adequate annual rainfall and, of course, the ready availability of streams suitable to powering mills meant small farms and large estates alike could make a living and prosper while feeding the burgeoning trade hubs of Boston, Albany and New York.
This year we in the Northeast have had a taste of something else: drought conditions. While we have had an abnormally dry year here in the Greater Berkshires, nationally we are seeing over 60% of counties in prolonged or extreme drought, compounded by much higher than average temperatures.
Aside from the issues of simply trying to stay cool and, for some, keeping lawns green, those of us in the business of raising food have been particularly attentive to daily weather reports, hoping for timely rains and cursing when the forecasters regularly say, “It’s going to be another beautiful but hot day out there.”
As our soils help differentiate our region from other parts of the country and world, so too our usual rainfall. We do not typically have to rely on pumped and piped water to irrigate our fields or pastures. When we are put in the predicament of needing more water on our fields—and, let’s face it, food production should probably trump green lawns—we mostly do not have the infrastructure in place to conduct the irrigation.
What does all this mean, as we try to build a more localized food infrastructure? First, we need to remember that we largely participate in global food sourcing. Apples from New Zealand, Australia and Chile regularly grace our grocery store shelves in spring and summer, out of sync with our local growing calendar but supplying our society’s demand for “right here, right now.”
Second, because most of the world’s food prices are pegged to commodities like corn and rice, as those crops fare, so do other commodities like barley, wheat, oats, beef and pork. Prices for all these are quite likely to jump in coming months. The U.S. production of corn drives much of the world market, and corn is suffering across the United States. If you haven’t got a sense of how ubiquitous corn is in our culture and economy, read or re-read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma or watch the film King Corn.
Along with the suffering of corn growers due to drought comes the plight of most livestock producers. There is a saying amongst ranchers: “You can’t feed your way out of a drought.” In other words, no one can afford to buy all the feed it would take to keep one’s cattle or sheep or hogs fed when there is no localized growth of forage. Besides, what does it cost to truck or pipe water from where it is to where it is not?
These conditions have led to major liquidation of livestock across the country. The United States is currently at a 60-year low in total cow inventory. While this liquidation is likely to drop commodity beef prices in the short term, the long-term forecast is for much higher beef, pork and chicken prices, not to mention the prices of corn oil, gasoline infused with corn-based ethanol, and corn chips to dip in your salsa.
Yet, as I write this long musing on the state of affairs in national commodity agriculture and food, it is raining here in the Berkshire Region. Despite some dry conditions through the summer, our pastures are green and growing. While many even in our region have been feeding hay to their cattle, ours have been grazing and gaining weight.
What’s the difference? Management, specifically holistic management. And with that teaser, I’ll leave you for now with some references and some homework.
Please check out an organization called Holistic Management International or its founder, Allan Savory. Also, I encourage you to read Stephen E. Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the West. While this may strike you as an odd selection, I’ll refer you to pages 31–33 for specific reference to the agricultural practices that differentiated the English landed gentry from the German smallholder. Those differences in agricultural practices still exist today and are embodied in the global commodity agriculture vs. the localized food system espoused here in the Berkshires.
I said I would challenge you. Not many would give a homework assignment directly to their readers. Maybe this will be the last I write for Edible Berkshires because of it, but I encourage you to get involved on an intellectual basis with your food, with your neighbors who are farmers. Read the labels on what you buy. Better yet, go to a farmers’ market and buy locally produced foods, most of which will not need to carry a label.
Most of all, think globally and eat locally.
Morgan E. Hartman can be reached at email@example.com.