Berkshire Ag Ventures nurtures farms into next generation

The cows at Hawthorne Valley Farm in Columbia County are only in the barn when necessary.

Patrick Grego

Berkshire Ag Ventures nurtures farms into next generation

GREAT BARRINGTON — With the right support, local farmers can turn a challenging season into a successful harvest.

Neil Chrisman and Joel Millonzi founded the nonprofit Berkshire Agricultural Ventures (BAV) in 2017 to help local farmers in the Berkshire-Taconic area (Berkshire County, Massachusetts; Columbia and Dutchess Counties, New York; and Litchfield County, Connecticut).

In BAV’s sunny office overlooking downtown Great Barrington, Executive Director Rebecca Busansky recalled the origins of BAV.

“Joel told me a story about him and Neil,” she said. “They’d just get in the car and drive around, talking to farmers about their needs, where the gaps were, and how to fill them.”

Seven years later, the group has assisted over 150 local businesses.

BAV’s “core services” are grants, loans, and technical assistance. They’ve provided $2.1 million in low interest loans, $1.5 million in grants, and 2,000 plus hours in technical assistance.

Busansky stressed BAV’s focus on low interest, flexible loans. They lend at 0 to 3%. Typical nonprofits will charge closer to a 7 to 8% interest rate for cost of capital, to pay staff etc.

Busansky said, “We rely on our mix of grants and donors to step up. We subsidize our loan program.”

Other funds come from state and federal grants, foundations, and private donors. BAV is a USDA microlender. They have a system called the Resilience Grant Fund where they can provide up to $5,000 “catalyzing” grants. Busansky said, “The idea with this is to get a farmer over the finish line.”

Fort Hill Farm owners Paul Bucciaglia and Rebecca Batchie, and son, with Dan Carr.Provided

BAV hires grant writers to consult with farmers. Since the pandemic, farmers have seen more grant opportunities; yet without certain knowledge, there’s “not an equal playing field.” Busansky explained, “By pairing farmers with a consultant, we can really make a difference,”

BAV’s specific programs include Local Meat Processing Support, Climate Smart Agriculture, and Market Match Fund.

The Market Match Fund is an initiative in its third year, working towards food access and economic development. It provides a funding stream, based on BAV fundraising, to match SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) dollars at Berkshire farmers’ markets. Customers can match up to $30 in eligible products, including meat, dairy, and even baked goods.

Ciana Barnaba, Community Relations & Resource Development Manager, brought the fund to life, with her experience managing farmers’ markets in New York City. There was a disconnect between farmers’ markets when it came to SNAP, creating a burden for those in charge.

Busansky said, “Market Match is a triple win piece. BAV helps farmers’ market managers, the low income community, and farmers.”

Ben Crockett, Climate Smart Agriculture Program Manager, explained his work, “The Programming for Climate Smart Ag is this huge umbrella of different practices of farm management looking at how farmers adapt to a changing climate.”

Drought ravished 2022. There were extreme floods in 2023. The climate is volatile.

Crockett explained a case he worked on last year. BAV did a risk assessment for Kelley Babbin at Howling Flats Farm LLC. Essentially, Crocket spoke with Babbin about her “biggest risks.”

First, her farm was below sea level, and second her farm suffered unexpected changes from towns shifting water discharge to fields. Impacted by severe flooding, Babbin couldn’t graze.

Crocket said, “We built a plan to amend her soils,” invested in Silvopasture, and paired her with a grant writer. Ultimately those systems improved drainage and reduced flooding consequences.

West Stockbridge Farmers Market.Patrick Grego

BAV also focuses on exploring issues across the broader food system. For instance, how can a farmer use all of a slaughtered animal for products, to reduce environmental consequences and increase economic benefits for food demand?

Bone broth, meatballs, and roving butchers are a part of the answer.

The Local Meat Program started four years ago with a report from Kitchen Table Consultants which found the major barrier for livestock farmers was access to meat processors. Busansky said, “If farmers can’t get appointments to process their animals, they can’t get products out to market.”

BAV developed long-term technical assistance engagements with meat processors, a livestock working group, The Meat Up (a newsletter and Listserv), and a HACCP hotline with Nicole Day of AgriForaging Food Safety for health and safety issues.

Considering new projects, Busansky said, “One area we’re looking at now is this real need to get the next generation of farmers onto farmland.”

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