Farmers look back, ahead at CISA event that kicked off 20th celebration
NORTHAMPTON — When Nancy Hanson moved to the Valley in 1999 to run Hampshire College’s community farm, it didn’t take her long to realize she was in a special place.
Lured by the offer of free food, the Connecticut native tagged along with a co-worker to an event in which CISA, or Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, launched its well-known “buy local” campaign.
She was surprised to hear people using the words hero and farmer in the same sentence, especially from people who weren’t farmers.
“I thought I was on another planet ... I never wanted to be a cult hero, but to the community here, farmers are cult heroes,” Hanson told about 75 people at a farmer panel Thursday night.
CISA sponsored the panel to kick off a series of events marking its 20th anniversary this year. The four panelists spent time discussing how farming in the Valley has changed over the last generation and how farmers have adapted to those changes. They also outlined some of the biggest challenges moving forward, with labor and weather topping the list.
Joining Hanson on the panel were Michael Docter of Winter Moon Farm in Hadley, Carolyn Wheeler of Wheel-View Farm in Shelburne and Nate L’Etoile of Four Star Farms in Northfield.
All of the farmers talked about how they’ve adapted and taken risks on new ideas over the years.
L’Etoile’s family, for example, made its living growing sod for a quarter-century, but two developments in recent years forced the farm to change. First, the recession hit, crippling the housing market and the need for turf for lawns. Second, L’Etoile and his brother moved back to the farm after vowing for years they wouldn’t do so.
Sod alone would not support three families. So the family began experimenting with a variety of ideas, from aquaculture to truffles before settling on hops and grains, which are milled into flour that’s sold throughout the Valley.
“We’ve evolved over the years,” L’Etoile said.
So too have the Wheelers, who experimented in many areas — dairy farming, flowers and teaching at the college level, to name a few — before launching their successful grass-fed beef operation a decade ago.
Docter also made a dramatic change about five years ago, when he left Food Bank Farm after 18 years and opened Winter Moon Farm in an effort to grow high-quality vegetables in winter.
“It’s so exciting to hear the stories of farmers over the last 20 years,” said CISA Executive Director Philip Korman.
Many credited CISA with being in the vanguard when it comes to support for local farmers. “CISA has been out in the forefront of this local movement and it’s spreading beyond the region,” Hanson said.
Korman said farmers are much more respected today than they used to be, especially as more people begin to understand where their food comes from and the work that goes into its production.
“We have people dreaming and believing that they can buy local,” he said.
So much so that CISA announced a bold new goal at Thursday’s event. Over the next 20 years, the organization would like to see the amount of local food in people’s diets double. That would mean that in two decades, 25 percent of the food people eat would be grown in the Valley, Korman said.
“We think that’s ambitious and we think its doable,” he said. “We hope that goal inspires all of us.”
As for future challenges for farmers, labor and weather topped the list.
“For agriculture in general, labor is going to be one of our biggest challenges here in the Valley,” said L’Etoile.
He said the seasonal nature of the business makes it tough to find and keep employees. L’Etoile is encouraged that farmers are working to expand their growing season into winter and that farmers markets are open year-round.
Others lamented what they see as the next generation’s lack of interest in farming. Wheeler said she hired a 17-year-old boy to help, but was shocked when he struggled to put on a pair of gloves.
“Finding labor is hard,” she said.
Hanson, who works with the next generation every day, said the days of passing farms down from one generation to the next are coming to an end. The key to recruiting new farmers is to make sure they are taught through a combination of education and mentoring programs, that they have access to affordable land and that the career provides a comfortable and secure living.
Docter worries about the effects of global warming. Two heavy rainstorms last year wiped out one-third of his crops. He encouraged farmers and others who support the “buy local” movement to speak out for a new carbon tax.
“I think the future is the same future that the planet is facing,” he said.