We Grow Our OwnBy | On Jun 24, 2011
In the Berkshires, the local, sustainable food movement took hold early and just keeps getting bigger
by Stephen Leon on June 23, 2011
When Berkshire Co-op Market opened at its current location in Great Barrington in 2002, the store sold about $100,000 in locally grown and made products in its first year. “And we thought that was the bomb,” says general manager Art Ames, expressing his happiness at that time with the low-six-figure sales.
Little did he know the extent to which the demand for locally produced food was about to explode: In the current fiscal year, Ames says, the market will sell about $1.8 million in local products.
Running the Berkshire Co-op Market has put Ames squarely in the midst—in more ways than one—of a significant cultural shift in how many Americans think about the food they eat. For one thing, he is very aware of significant changes happening in his own industry: “In the early ’80s,” he says, “the fastest growing department in grocery stores, bar none, was frozen foods.” Today, he says, among food co-ops nationwide, frozen foods is the one department that is actually shrinking.
All across the country, phrases like “locally grown,” “farm-to-table” and “100-mile diet” have been turning up with more and more frequency as restaurants increasingly feature locally sourced ingredients, and buy-local advocates and consumers alike extol the virtues of farmers markets, food co-ops and CSAs. But if this movement seems widespread now, it came early to Berkshire County—and seems more embedded in the culture there than in many other regions of the country.
Agriculture has deep roots in Berkshire County, but in the postwar era, any idea of a sustainable food culture took a backseat to a new model of food production that stressed processing, packaging and mass production of heavily marketed brands. Even as the county began to develop a reputation for excellent restaurants—spurred in large part by the weekend and summer visitors who flocked there to relax amid the natural beauty and experience world-class arts—the best chefs weren’t necessarily shopping locally. In the late’60s, says Ames, when gas was cheap and we were starting to see peaches in supermarkets year-round, chefs “were interested in getting the best stuff, but they’d shop far and wide for it.”
But new ideas about the relationship of consumers and food were beginning to take hold in the ’80s, and Berkshire County was on the leading edge of what would become a widespread movement. In 1985, Robyn Van En, Jan Vandertuin and a coalition of local citizens (including Susan Witt, who has long been a local advocate for land trusts and human-scale economies, and developed a microcredit program that was a precursor to the county’s local-only currency, BerkShares), founded one of the nation’s first two community-supported-agriculture programs at Indian Line Farm in South Egremont. (The other, in New Hampshire, appeared at roughly the same time; today there are more than 12,000 CSA farms in the United States.)
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