Not so Easy
Sourcing local meats and raw milk can be a challenge
For as long as I’ve lived in the country, I have saved cardboard egg cartons—despite their somewhat sogginess in the humid summer months—to leave at roadside stands and driveway coolers where I pay for a dozen eggs whose panoply of color and size always amazes me. The grocery-store alternative, I now find, always pale, literally, in comparison to the yield from cold-weather flocks comprised of Rhode Island Reds, Ameraucanas, and Easter Eggers. It is rare that anyone reverts to the dairy aisle after experiencing the sage-, cream-, and rose-colored shells that give way to golden, almost orange-hued yolks of local eggs from happy chickens left to wander the varied terrain, feasting on insects and scratching for seeds while freely flapping their wings.
There is no shortage of access to local farm products in the Berkshires. The sale and distribution of eggs, unprocessed honey, maple syrup, uncut vegetables, fruits, and herbs are unregulated by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. As a result, it is nearly impossible to traverse the winding roads in summer without happening upon an array of farm stands and pop-up outposts selling surplus tomatoes and zucchini to passersby. An old Folgers can, with a slit cut in the plastic lid, often stands in as cashier in an era that still abides by the honor system for such transactions. But what about local meats and dairy?
The ease of acquiring some local products is balanced by the obstacles that must be overcome to procure others. Raw milk, defined as milk that has not been pasteurized to kill harmful bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria, has been historically difficult to come by in Berkshire County. Despite clear micro-dairy laws in nearby Connecticut, Maine, Vermont, and New York, Massachusetts has been encumbered by stringent infrastructure requirements that restrict both the sale and distribution of raw milk without a license. Raw milk is only allowed for sale at those farms certified and inspected by the Department of Agricultural Resource—not at farmers markets—which requires jumping through hoops that are equally time-consuming and expensive.
Only a generation ago, my father came of age on a family farm in Wisconsin where 40 cows were milked by hand twice daily. He drank that milk, as did his nine cousins who worked the farm with him, and their guts were well conditioned to the minimal processing. Their remaining daily yields were then sold to the local cheese factory where, at the end of each day, the residual whey was returned to the farm to feed the pigs. It was the advent of rural electrification, post–World War II, that put an end to lowering a quart bottle of milk by a rope into a cistern to keep it cool. The novelty of commercial pasteurization and homogenization made raw milk fall quickly out of style, even in the rural Midwest.
Barriers continue for farmers looking to secure legal and affordable processing of their locally raised meat and poultry. Beef and lamb, if intended for sale, must be slaughtered in a federally inspected and licensed facility. USDA–inspected meat products must bear the mark of inspection on each retail package—more expensive hoops that ultimately restrict access to consumers. In the Berkshires, farmers are further hindered by the lack of easy access to facilities—other than slaughterhouses—that provide butchering, processing, and curing services to local meat producers. At present, most producers travel close to two hours for operations that are licensed and of high quality with regard to custom meat cutting.
When it comes to processing poultry, farmers are increasingly trending toward a more convenient model for smaller farms—a mobile poultry-processing unit that brings the entire operation straight to a farmer’s flock. The unit is the only cost-effective option in Massachusetts for farmers who want to legally sell their farm-raised birds for meat, save for installing their own equipment, which is too expensive. In fact, the cost-prohibitive factor of providing and procuring locally sourced meats and poultry has resulted in many farmers going “underground” or “off the radar,” which, as one might imagine, no one is openly talking about.
I am raising my daughters on rural land where I spent summers as a child, and the local abundance is honored in our family. We covet the asparagus when it rears its nose in the warming days of April, we tug rosy rhubarb stalks from the earth with abandon come May, and we wait with eager anticipation for June’s sweet strawberries. Much of July is spent with wild-blueberry stains on our fingers, and the prospect of stone fruit often warrants a drive over Route 57 to Granville for peaches and nectarines. And then there are the apples, dozens of varietals in which we delight as summer wanes and the cool, breezy days of fall are ushered in.
These same daughters, however, consume tidy packages of beef and chicken wrapped in cellophane and Styrofoam from the grocery store—or, at the least, wrapped in brown paper from the butcher. They recognize their favorite milk by the color of its cap, and the notion of a cream plug in a glass bottle of milk continues to elude them—for the moment.