03/05/2014 05:22 pm ET Updated May 05, 2014

Berkshire Grown: A Case Study of an Organization Vital in Creating a Local Food System in Western Massachusetts

As a new farmer with little experience, and new to the food and agriculture community in the Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts, the first thing I did as I began preparations for my initial season, was to look for an organization that could aid my endeavor, and provide me with crucial support to help get me started. Within a few hours of officially signing up as a professional (farmer, restaurateur, shop owner) member of Berkshire Grown, a non-profit linking farmers and the community, both Barbara Zheutlin, the organization's Executive Director, and Sheryl Lechner, its membership coordinator, had reached out and began helping me, a new farmer, to get up and running in the Berkshires.

I remember the first conversation I had with Barbara and Sheryl: They immediately suggested outlets for my produce and gave me insight into which famers' markets I could sell at, in addition to connecting me with more experienced growers (who ended up becoming my mentors during the season). From day one, I could tell that running a successful farm -- both from an agriculture perspective as well as financial one -- would mean utilizing the tremendous resources that Berkshire Grown offered as one of the primary local food umbrella organizations in the region.

Before I started farming, I had little idea that non-profits like Berkshire Grown existed all over the nation, supporting small farms in ways that, unfortunately, state and federal governments are currently not set up to do. While the latest Farm Bill continues to provide substantial resources for large, commodity-producing farms, it does not do enough for small (and sustainable) operations, that could most use the support. Additions to the Farm Bill that would help "local farms," like those here in Western Massachusetts -- the "Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act," introduced in the U.S. House in the spring of 2013, for example -- have virtually stalled, blocked by the powerful industrial agricultural interests that dominate our political system. So, what does this mean? Local food and agriculture umbrella NGOs like Berkshire Grown have to be a primary resource for farmers and producers who have no one else to turn to. It's no wonder that organizations like Berkshire Grown have popped up throughout the country (CISA in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, Farm Fresh Rhode Island, CUESA in Northern California, for example). They fill a tremendous need for three primary reasons: They create local food networks, provide resources to farmers, and most importantly, promote the consumption of locally-produced goods.

Creating a local food network

As new farms sprout up, and especially here in New England, it's vital for the new agrarians to have a network to tap into on day one. Berkshire Grown publishes a directory, which lists every one of its members -- an invaluable resource for farms looking to connect to buyers, and visa versa. In addition, they release an annual local-food guide and map of the Berkshires, making it easy for visitors to consume locally and support the region's farmers and producers. Perhaps even more importantly, Berkshire Grown and organizations like it, help connect new farmers to more experienced ones, allowing for invaluable mentorship. This was indispensable to me since I started with little experience.

Resources to ensure every farmer succeeds

Not only does Berkshire Grown work to connect farmers and producers in the region and create a "local food network," but it also hosts crucial workshops and seminars for its members -- whether on marketing and branding strategies (something farmers generally don't have time to work on since they're in the field most of the day), or a forum on increasing access to slaughter houses (farmers have to travel far to find these facilities). And at the beginning of each season, Berkshire Grown hosts a networking event for farmers and buyers, so that each group can discuss its needs and availabilities for the upcoming season. The organization also disseminates information from various government agencies (USDA Farm Service Agency, Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources) and organizations (Beginning Farmer Network of Massachusetts, NOFA, NSAW) about grant opportunities, storm recovery, education initiatives, etc., to their farmer-members. It is unlikely that a small operation like mine would get this information without Berkshire Grown distributing it.

Promoting the region's abundance

While to some, shopping at their local farmers' market is a weekly ritual, others in our region don't know about the agricultural abundance that lies just out their door. Thus, Berkshire Grown performs a much-needed role in promoting local food and agriculture. Through their publications and branding, and the countless events they hold throughout the year, the organization ensures that consumers always look to shop for Berkshire grown food first and foremost. At the culmination of each growing season, they host their popular "Harvest Supper," which features local chefs cooking up food from the region's farms, a delicious celebration of the Berkshire's bounty. While local food sales have skyrocketed in recent years (the USDA estimates that sales were close to nearly $7 billion nationwide last year), and Massachusetts boasts an impressive number of farmers' markets (289 as of August 2013 -- 7th nationwide, according to the USDA), many residents of our region, in addition to its visitors, don't understand the full extent of our local food system. Berkshire Grown works tirelessly to bridge that gap. And even more importantly, it works to make the region's abundance accessible to all. Through their "Share the Bounty" program, Berkshire Grown provides subsidized CSA (community supported agriculture) shares to local families who otherwise wouldn't be able to purchase food from farms that are only minutes away.

With a staff of just one full and two part-time employees (along with a dedicated volunteer board), Berkshire Grown has established itself as a true umbrella organization for local food here in Western Massachusetts. They provide essential resources for small farmers, and have created a true brand for local food in the region. And here is the point -- while they do an incredible job, they're not unique: Organizations like Berkshire Grown operate all over the country, filling a key role in our national small-scale food system, making them bedrocks of the "local food" movement. These organizations need our support.