Here in the Berkshires, the landscape plays a crucial role in daily life. For students at the College, it means walking up and down sloping hills on our way to class or to Tunnel City Coffee. The terrain adds some challenge to our walk down to Water Street Books. But in a much more significant way, the landscape around us is home to a rich farming community.
Berkshire Grown, an organization dedicated to supporting agriculture in the area, lists 231 members as a part of their network of farmers, markets, restaurants, community-supported agriculture and inns. Will Raskin ’15 visited some of these farms as a part of his internship with the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives this summer. “I was especially interested in farms that had a specific Williams connection,” he said. However, he saw his project as more than an examination of the College’s interactions with the farms near campus. “It wasn’t just supposed to be a project that focused on Williams’ role in all of this; it was really supposed to focus on the broader community,” Raskin said.
As a part of his project, Raskin photographed 14 farms, three restaurants, two farmers’ markets and the facilities of the main food distributor for the College. These photographs were accompanied by interviews and conversations with local farmers and members of the agriculture community. Within the breadth of the sites he visited, Raskin tried to include different types of farms. “I really tried to get a wide variety,” he said. “A few of the farms I went to sort of did it all, and then some of the farms I went to focused mainly on raising cattle or pigs or chickens.” Though he had a framework for the project, Raskin wanted to truly reflect what he encountered. “I tried to not go in with so much of a preconceived notion of the kinds of things I would be taking pictures of, because I wanted to let what I found dictate what the focus of the project was going to be,” he said. Overall, Raskin looked to discover how much the farms are a part of the Berkshire community and how they impact the local economy, job market and diet.
Williamstown has its own little slice of the Berkshire farming community. The Williamstown Farmers Market, a gathering of local artisans and farmers, convenes every Saturday morning from the end of May to October down at the end of Spring Street. Andree Clearwater, a member of the market for the past four years, has seen the market nearly double in size since she joined in 2008. According to the artist, the mix of farmers to artisans is currently a little unbalanced. “Ideally,” Clearwater admits, “the mix of a farmers market would be more produce and less craft.”
Kelly Johnson, who represents her family farm every week at the market, also has seen the market grow over the past four years. “When we first started, there weren’t very many craft vendors and not as many farmers,” she said. “We decided to increase the number of tents and people to try and draw more customers, which I think has pretty much worked.” The ratio of locals to visitors who frequent the market varies with the weekend according to Johnson: “When there are College events, there are more people in town. But the locals come out when there aren’t College events.”
While the College has access to the farming communities nearby, sustainable agriculture extends beyond the college experience. Lucy Rollins ’12 has been working on an organic vegetable farm in Pownal, Vt. She works in the field for 26 hours a week, sells at farmers markets and helps to run the farm’s community-supported agriculture program. While at the College, Rollins was able to nurture her interest in sustainable food. “I started some of this kind of work at Williams by helping out at the garden my sophomore year, cooking for Log Lunch, eventually running Log Lunch and being involved in several groups and events focused on the environment and sustainability.”
Though Rollins engaged in sustainability while at the College, her inspiration to work with food stems from something deeper. “At the couple farms I’ve worked at, the sense of community engagement in the food; the process of growing it, the joys of cooking and sharing it, has been really nurturing and inspiring to me,” she said.
Rollins sees sustainable farming as “representative of the mutualistic relationship between humans, other organisms, and the land, that is at the heart of environmentalism.” Though her farm work has been environmentally conscious, Rollins also sees farming as a soul-enriching experience. “The farming world is a lot of hard physical work, but it’s colorful and rich and full of incredible people,” she said.