Editor’s Note: This article was authored in partnership with 1Berkshire’s Marketing team.
Launched in February of 2019, the Berkshire Blueprint 2.0 presented a cluster-based model to address needs and find ways to benchmark achievement in five (soon to be six) industrial clusters. Each aided by an economic partner to help identify challenges and opportunities, the clusters currently include Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering; Creative Economy; Food and Agriculture; Healthcare; and Hospitality and Tourism.
This column is the first in a series devoted to speaking with cluster collaborators. 1Berkshire sat down with Glenn Bergman, Interim Executive Director of Berkshire Agriculture Ventures (BAV), a nonprofit devoted to providing access to flexible financial and targeted technical resources for farmers and local food businesses, with the goal of nourishing a vibrant local food economy. Bergman works closely with 1Berkshire to tackle the challenges the Food and Agriculture cluster faces: costly farmland, technical capacity of farmers, overly-seasonally-focused products, underdeveloped markets, and infrastructure bottlenecks.
The following conversation looks briefly at BAV’s current initiatives, the forward momentum of Berkshire agriculture, and the true cost of producing local food.
Based on your bio, it seems you’ve been drawn to food in some capacity for most of your career, first as a chef, then co-op manager and executive director for a food bank. What drew you to food and agriculture, and how did you find your way to BAV?
BERGMAN: Well, it actually goes back to the 1960s when my mother started a cooking school in our house. As a kid I’d come home from school and get the leftovers, and on Sundays we’d often go shopping in New York’s Chinatown for ingredients.
I found my way to agriculture through my co-op work. When I was the general manager of Weavers Way Co-op in Philadelphia, I could see the impact our work had on the local economy, small farmers, and the quality of product. The phase “think globally but act locally” meant a lot to me.
What brought me to BAV was a friend who asked if I could assist with some fundraising. Once I met Tom Gardner, the board president, a few of the board members, and Neil Chrisman, one of the founders, I was eager to join. BAV is a behind-the-scenes nonprofit helping farmers, food producers, and the region, expand the agricultural economy. It has a beautiful mission and an amazing small staff—it’s an honor to be part of this group.
I’ve always been drawn to the food business because of both my desire to learn more about food—how it brings us together—and for the impact it has on community development. I fell in love with this industry, the people, and the culture.
BAV has a variety of special initiatives in the works. Can you describe a current pressing issue and how BAV and local partners are addressing the challenge?
BERGMAN: Speak to any farmer raising animals and they will tell you how difficult it is to process them for market. In the US, about 85% of our meat is processed by only four major corporate owners. When one of these giant facilities goes down, as it did during Covid, our entire food system is compromised.
BAV recently launched a Local Meat Processing Support Program and is working with partners to execute a few goals. We’re working to increase “throughput” at livestock processing facilities by providing targeted technical support and loans to assist them with increasing revenue. Subsequently, this will open up more flexible booking dates for livestock farmers.
We also are working on locating regional freezer space. Right now as we speak, there is a silent farming crisis in this region for adequate freezer space. Large cold storage space is very expensive to build, maintain, and run, especially on farms. Running many individual chest freezers (a common scenario for individual farms) tends to be both insufficient and inefficient for producers over the long term.
Another important area that is becoming part of our mission is assisting local farmers with transitions towards climate smart agriculture methods. Combating climate change and sequestering carbon must be part of our mission and integrated into BAV’s short- and long-term goals. You can really change the quality of the farmland, capture carbon, and provide other benefits for your farm when you work with nature. And we’re lucky to be working with brilliant planners and farmers to bring agricultural methods that we don’t see often in our region—yet.
For example, certain plants can be planted as barriers along river beds to prevent runoff, or as buffers to cut down on wind, or to provide shade for animals. Soon you will see more chestnuts, hazelnuts, berry plants, Locusts trees, and other native species being planted. This is the way farming used to be.
Now that awareness and momentum within the Berkshire agricultural sector seems to be growing, what do you see as the overall potential for this sector? How much growth is realistic in the next generation?
BERGMAN: Slowly, step by step, we will work with as many groups as we can to increase agribusinesses viability, production, and consumption of local food. The demand for local food is there, but only about 12% of our consumption in the Berkshires comes from a local source. We hope to increase that to 30% by 2030. We may not hit this number exactly as it’s aspirational, but I do know we’re taking the right steps to get us there.
Most public perception is that local foods are more expensive than what you get at box stores and chain markets. Can you talk a little more about ways to make local foods more affordable?
BERGMAN: Local food does cost more because the production is not done at a scale our wallets have become accustomed to. Those local food prices reflect the real, actual cost of producing food. It’s not subsidized. So, we need to figure out the logistics for our region to help bring costs down.
One initiative in the early stages is BAV’s plan to increase available Market Match funding at farm markets. Market Match, or “Bonus Bucks”—it’s called by different names throughout the country—is an incentive program that matches SNAP benefits dollar for dollar when used at farmers markets. It’s a great program. And for BAV, we see Market Match as a vehicle for economic development in that it not only increases peoples’ purchasing power at local farm markets, it also provides an additional revenue stream for farmers. By leveraging SNAP through supporting Market Match programs, it uniquely supports food access while simultaneously achieving BAV’s goal to improve farmer business viability.
When you buy local, the quality that you are getting and the support it provides to the local economy is extremely valuable to farmers and the community. When you buy local, your money stays local. Plus, it’s the best food I’ve had in my life. I feel better buying that than anything at a large conglomerate. It may be a little more expensive, but it has a tangible, lasting value.
Can you talk about BAV’s role in local job creation in the Berkshires and surrounding areas?
BERGMAN: When we think of the Berkshires, BAV is looking at not only Massachusetts, but also New York and Connecticut. We have to consider all small businesses in our area. When we give a low interest loan to a farmer or a local food producer, we are interested in seeing how this will grow their business and increase the labor needed. Often, we are trying to make sure that the farm continues as a viable entity, and that translates to jobs. Part of this is also keeping as much of our production local so that we increase consumption of local products in the region.
A good example of this is a small loan to New Lebanon Farmers Market for refrigeration so they can run their farm market year-round inside a building. Our hope is that this will become a true market and in a few years they can hire staff to run that market.
Describe your experience working with 1Berkshire and others in this cluster. How does it feel to be one of the lead advocates?
BERGMAN: We cannot meet our mission’s goals without collaborating and working with others. What I like about 1Berkshire is that Ben Lamb and Kevin Pink of the Economic Development team are so focused on collaboration. It is a joy to work with them. 1Berkshire is a “connector” and both Ben and Kevin are the conductors. Truthfully, BAV is honored to be a lead advocate for the Berkshire Blueprint 2.0 and the Food and Agriculture cluster.
Thank you for taking the time.
BERGMAN: My pleasure.
To learn more about 1Berkshire, the Berkshire Blueprint 2.0, and all our initiatives, visit us online. Learn more about BAV and tune into the Virtual Berkshire Agricultural Ventures Info Session on November 17th to meet the Team, learn about their service offerings, and how to apply for assistance. To register, email: firstname.lastname@example.org