Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Transcript farm-series features transfer of Caretaker Farm

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: Thurs., Feb. 16, 2006

Caretaker Farm owners Samuel W. Smith and Elizabeth V. Smith pose with farm manager Donald Zasada, center. The Williamstown farm sells shares that entitle shareholders to weekly produce during the summer months.
Photo by Gillian Jones/North Adams Transcript

Sharing the harvest

By Shaw Israel Izikson, North Adams Transcript

WILLIAMSTOWN -- Over its 36-year history, Caretaker Farm on Hancock Road has become known for innovative farming methods.

The farm has been owned by Samuel W. and Elizabeth V. Smith since 1969, and was one of the first organic farms in Berkshire County. It uses 7-1/2 acres to grow 40 types of vegetables and herbs and has 20 acres of pastureland for cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens.

The Smiths purchased the old dairy farm in 1969 from a couple who were retiring.

"They gave up the herd, and the farm was going back to brush," said Sam Smith. "When the farm was formed back in the 18th century, there were several different forms of livestock, and in the early 19th century, there was a lot of sheep farming. The biggest change is that today the farm is more diversified with a small amount of livestock and the produce."

In 1991, it became one of the first community supported farms: consumers can buy farm shares that entitles them to weekly harvests of fresh-picked organic fruits and vegetables. The farm also participates in Berkshire Grown, a local organization that supports farming through programs that link farms with the community.

According to caretaker Donald Zasada, the community-supported agricultural model is what sets Caretaker Farm apart from other local farms.

"You have a guaranteed income at the start of the season with people paying for shares, and with that you have a guaranteed income coming in with which you can pay your bills," he said. "It takes a great deal of risk out of farming."

The farm currently has 225 family shareholders, with each full share costing $550 a year. With the share, members can come to the farm once a week to pick vegetables and other crops.

"They pick what they want and put it into a big canvas bag," Zasada said. "If they're serious vegetarians, they can pay a little extra to get a second bag."

Smith claims the farm does not fall into categories of profit or nonprofit. "(Shareholders) are supporting the farm, which is supporting the community," he said. "Their support of the farm gives the farmer a fixed amount of income, which allows them a decent, good and adequate living."

The farm is currently in a period of transition, with Zasada slowly taking over the managerial duties. "Sam and Elizabeth are reaching the age where they're ready to let go, and they have been working on a transition for the past few years," he said. "They will continue to live on the farm, they just won't be the managers of the business."

This is Zasada's first year managing the farm, although he previously managed another community-supported farm, Baker Ridge in Lincoln, owned by The Food Project, a nonprofit food development organization. He said his wife, Bridget Spann, and their 2-year-old daughter, Gabrielle, are in love with farm life. "Gabrielle) is in love with the baby chicks we have, as well as the four baby pigs we have," he said.

Zasada said the biggest challenge he faces are the ever-changing weather, which can support or hamper the growth of produce. "It's an incredible balance to deal with the weather," he said. "During any given year, some vegetables do well, and some do not. However, you're always going to have a positive season, because some crops will always do well."

Smith said the key to a successful farm is having the community involved with it. "It's a cutthroat business, and farmers need to gain better control over their markets, and that means cooperating with the local community, as well as the community appreciating the positive contributions the farms make," he said. "Farms in the Berkshires are facing problems like urban sprawl and second homes that are rising land prices. On the positive side, there are people out here who are interested in renewing a spirit of community due to the absence of it, and local food is critical to that."

He said another way the farm has become part of the community is through the programs and community events that are held on the farm, including workshops on farming, a summer solstice event and agricultural training programs for Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and Williams College students.

The farm also accepts four apprentices each year, who stay there seven months, and who usually are from programs at the New England Small Farm Institute. "They are usually in their mid-20s and they have a college education, and they are dedicated to farming," Smith said. "We're more than just a place to get food," he said. "Students have learned about agricultural and ecology, and it's a real mutuality. That part of it is very positive and hopeful for the future."

The bakery on the property was started in 1980 by the Smith's oldest daughter, Barclay, when she was still in college. "Even though she's moved out to western Colorado with her husband, we still have the bakery for members of the farm," he said.

Smith said the farm is going into a community land trust, which he said will ensure it will remain as a working farm and will preserve the land. "There are so many farms out there with a fragile future, the reason why this farm has thrived is because of community support," he said. "This is
the community's farm, and we wouldn't be here without the community's support. When people think about farming, some people think it's just about food, that an apple is just an apple. Well, there's a story there. It's my life to grow that apple."

Shaw Israel Izikson can be reached at sizikson@thetranscript.com .


Post a Comment

<< Home