Editorial: Innovation key to farmers’ success 

  • Fourth-generation farmer Sam Yazwinski is accompanied by Beech as he piles up silage at the Yazwinski Farm in Old Deerfield. The family grows 190 acres of corn to feed their 150 dairy and beef cows during the winter. RECORDER FILE PHOTO

  • Howard Grover empties a bucket of sap at River Maple Farm sugar house, circa 1950s. Maple syrup production has sustained farmers since the 19th century. From the collection of Patricia Shearer

Monday, February 05, 2018

Pioneer Valley farmers have long been resilient and innovators: Sugarcane ring a bell? Franklin H. Williams made 30 gallons of syrup from his sugarcane crop in 1857. How about broom corn? Dr. Josiah Trow of Sunderland grew 2½ acres of corn destined to be made into sweeping utensils. Cranberries? Aaron Fuller of Deerfield, in the 19th century, tried it but lost most of his crop to insect damage. Silkworms? Dr. Alpheau F. Stone of Greenfield joined the short-lived craze, circa 1838, planting 1,200 mulberry trees.

Farming endeavors with more staying power include maple syrup production, pasture-raised beef and pork, and more recently still, organically grown vegetables destined for farm stands, farmers markets and the flash-freezing facility at the Franklin County Community Development Corp. commercial kitchen in Greenfield.

Our farmers of yore might not recognize the plastic tubing strung through maple groves, the sluice of shelled corn filling 50-pound bags to fuel pellet stoves, or the solar arrays and methane digesters that create renewable energy, but they would understand the market forces that drive today’s farmers to innovate and survive.

Bar-Way Farm in Deerfield was founded in 1936 and has been run by five generations of the Melnik family. There are 500 Holstein cows on the dairy farm, where a $5 million methane digester went online last year and produces 1 megawatt of electricity.

A total of about 75 tons of organic food waste from around the state is delivered weekly to the farm, where it is added to about 25 tons of manure produced by its cows.

One benefit for neighbors is fewer odors, because the methane is removed and contained before the organic fertilizer is spread on the 700 acres the farm uses for cropland off Mill Village Road.

“I used to import my fertilizer and my oil for heat,” says farmer Peter Melnik. “Now I’ll be able to make all my own. That’s what sustainability is all about. And we’re taking care of the waste locally and using it for a lot of good things.”

The owners of Brook’s Bend Farm in Montague, once known as the Bissell Place, realized that their acreage had more potential than they could utilize themselves, and thus opened it up to others. Now the property hosts Wolf’s Tree nature programs for children and adults, Clearpath Herbal, Sage Farm specializing in pasture-raised pork, and Little Song Farm specializing in lamb, chicken and free-range eggs.

Owners Suzanne Webber and Allen Miller, who raise Shetland sheep for their wool, have a vision of shared stewardship of the property, with a long-term goal of creating a nonprofit land trust.

Farming in the Valley is a vocation that continues to evolve today but stays true to its deep roots. River Maple Farm in Bernardston, for example, which is into its fourth generation of Grover family farmers, hopes to get a solar array this summer. It would provide 5 megawatts of solar power and support the farm into the next generation.

Farming is not just a job, explained the River Maple’s present-day owners, Philip and Donna Grover. It’s a lifestyle.