Standing Her Ground
Lila Wilde Berle has farming in her genes––plus the farm's "restaurant without walls."
At age 79, Lila Berle claims that she’s slowing down. Here on her farm in Great Barrington, there’s no sign of that.
Photos by Matt Petricone
“Something died up there,” Lila Berle says suddenly, her attention caught by a flicker of motion. A group of buzzards circles just over the hill. “There’s always something going on in this ecosystem,” she reflects. “We have kestrels, eagles, coyotes, foxes, bobcats.”
And also 800 sheep, a few highland cows, and a gaggle of geese that share the 500 acres of grazing fields, woodland, hayfields, and swamp that make up Lila’s Farm in Great Barrington.
The farm once again will transform into a “restaurant without walls” for Great Barrington’s fifth “Outstanding in the Field” dinner on September 8, part of an open-air dining experience that promotes local farms. With its three-state views, al fresco elegance, and gourmet menus, the dinner at Lila’s Farm has become so popular that this year’s tickets sold out in March—less than an hour after becoming available.
“The farm-to-table movement has brought attention to local farmers and to the chefs who source their food locally,” Lila says, naming longtime customers Dan Smith of John Andrews Restaurant, Brian Alberg of the Red Lion Inn, and Daire Rooney, formerly of Allium in Great Barrington and now with Mezze in Williamstown, as chefs who have supported the event.
Lila’s family is six generations deep in the Berkshires, from great-grandparents who arrived sometime in the 1860s to 15 grandchildren. When she was 16, Lila and her future husband courted in a Berkshire hayfield. Two of her four children still live in the area; one is principal at Muddy Brook Elementary School, while another makes cheese and raises grass-fed beef in Hoosick, New York. As we speak, two grandchildren are lying under a tractor trying to fix some metal teeth that have been damaged by the infamous New England rocks.
It’s a life that called to her from her childhood at High Lawn Farm in Lee. But her father considered heavy-duty farm chores unsuitable for a girl. Instead, she rode her horse all over the property, becoming intimately familiar with every fold of the land. It was a natural step to study ecology at Smith College, and in a neat twist of fate, she married her hayfield suiter—Peter Berle, who had similar interests and would become president of the National Audubon Society from 1985 to 1995, before his death in 2007. Even while living in New York for 12 years, she kept a foothold in the Berkshires.
“Peter was saving the world, and I was local,” she says, which understates her work as president or chairman of the board of 14 Berkshire cultural, educational, and community institutions. Two are particularly close to her heart. Her 40-year association with The Mount has familial roots—her great-grandparents attended Edith Wharton’s very first luncheon there; later, as a girl, she rode her horse all over the property. Her association with the Norman Rockwell Museum is similarly personal, beginning with an acquaintance with Molly Rockwell, Norman’s third wife, and loading stones from her farmland in Monument Valley and donated them so the museum’s stonework would be “authentically Berkshire.”
At age 79, Lila claims that she’s slowing down, but there’s no sign of that as she describes a typical day.
“The first thing is feeding the dogs. Nothing happens without the dogs,” she says as Koji, an enormous Maremma, bounds over a fence. “It’s a breed from Northern Italy that has spent 2,000 years guarding sheep from wolves, so they definitely protect our sheep from the coyotes.” While their preferred strategy is a verbal threat, they can, if necessary, hold their own with brute force. Scars on Koji’s face prove his mettle.
And then it’s the daily routine of morning mowing and afternoon baling as Lila and her crew grow the hay that feeds the animals. “It used to be I’d spend 12 hours on the tractor,” she says. “I loved it. Your mind is clear, you have to focus, nothing can interrupt. You have time to think big thoughts.” Some days are interrupted by the chatty process of selling to individual buyers, including Armenians, Italians, Greeks, and Russians who come from central Massachusetts and Connecticut to buy lamb for holiday feasts. “If I had more lambs, I could sell them, butI don’t because I have to listen to my land.”
Even with her success, farming remains a difficult way to make a living. “There used to be farms all up and down the Berkshires,” Lila says. “But you can’t support a family on 15 cows anymore. Nobody farms to make money. They farm because it’s a way of life. The biggest travesty is the huge spec houses. I hate seeing productive farmland turned into homes, especially if they are unoccupied. The farmers have to be increasingly sophisticated about agricultural and farming easements—complex legal tools that can help keep land in a farming family.”
She has put several hundred acres of her land in either conservation or agricultural easements in order to preserve them for the next generation. “I feel like just keeping the land open and using it productively, feeding a lot of people. Those are good things to be doing.”
Lila points to a hill where an ancient, storm-battered maple clings to life. “I have visions of a couple of the kids joining up and continuing to farm this place,” she says. Next to the old tree is a young one—the next generation—setting down roots.