On a warm and quiet day, Elisa Spungen Bildner was sitting with Kim Wells, the farmer at East Mountain Farm in Williamstown. They had walked up into the woods where his pigs forage in summer. The young hogs were wandering free-range, rooting in the leaf mast under the trees. They had copper backs and light bellies, like the Hereford beef cattle in his pastures.
Bildner and Wells sat in the shade, talking while the yearling pigs came up to him, and he scratched their backs as he might with a young dog.
She has spent many hours in the last few years talking with farmers and walking through fields. In the midst of the pandemic, she and her husband, Rob, have published The Berkshires Farm Table Cookbook: 125 Homegrown Recipes from the Hills of New England.
The book has grown into two stories in one, she said, as small family farms weave through a collection of recipes inspired by local ingredients. She and her husband have become warmly invested in local farms and restaurants, especially as Covid has put a heavy pressure on them in the past year, and the winter cold is intensifying it.
She has always tended to pick up ingredients new to her, she said, and to wonder about them, and explore. In her book, and in the blog on her website, she may make coleslaw from kohlrabi spiked with chili peppers — or grate firm golden rutabegas and turn them into latkes with homemade apple sauce.
In creating these new recipes, the Bildners have partnered with Brian Alberg, executive chef and co-owner of the Break Room in North Adams, and well-known in the Berkshires for his many years as chef with the historic Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, the Tap House in West Stockbridge and Seeds Cafe at Hancock Shaker Village and more.
He has helped to create the recipes, Bildner said, to make sure each new concoction — soup and crumble and sweet quick bread — is easy to make in a home kitchen, with the flavor and balance and sense of adventure she finds in cooking with local ingredients.
But even more than a pleasure in local food, she has felt a deeper connection in meeting the people behind it.
Right now she knows people in the hills around her who are planning for maple sugaring season, coaxing greens to grow in tunnel houses and starting seeds indoors, and getting ready for the lambing in early spring.
She and Rob planned to write the cookbook in a year, she said, but it has grown into many stories over many months. She would come to farms and walk through the fields, and spend hours talking with farmers. Rob would get up in the early mornings to walk through the barnyards and pastures and take photographs.
They felt closely tied to the area, and they would spend weekend mornings at local farmers markets, picking up snap peas and strawberries. But they had not met the farmers who grew them — not until their youngest son, Rafi, became one of them.
They both have food and storytelling solidly rooted in their backgrounds. She is a professionally trained chef and journalist, a former CEO of FreshPro, a fresh-cut produce company, and a journalism professor at Rutgers University and New York University. Rob is a former attorney who has created food distribution and manufacturing companies to bring healthy food to market, from local farms across the country.
And getting to know farmers on the ground has brought them closer to the Berkshires in new and revealing ways.
The Bildners have lived here as very full-time second homeowners for 35 years, Elisa said.
“We had a second home before we had a first home, and it was here,” she said.
They felt closely tied to the area, and they would regularly spend weekend mornings at local farmers markets, picking up snap peas and strawberries.
But they had not met the farmers who grew them — not until their youngest son, Rafi, became one of them. He started to grow vegetables on their land and sell them at local farmers markets. He had gardened on a smaller scale for years, Bildner said. As a boy he would set up a simple roadside stand, a table and a self-serve box. Then, after a year at the Mountain School in Vermont he began to cultivate a half acre as October Mountain Farm.
Watching him, Bildner saw what it took to grow food and get it to market. She saw how hard he was working and how slim the profit.
She also grew to understand the care and time and attention he was putting into the work — how much he had to know about the soil and the environment, to keep his plants healthy in sustainable ways. He is a trained chef now, she said, and he is considering opening a farm to table restaurant in the Berkshires.
He has taught her how much difference that local connection makes.
She remembers trying Rafi’s vegetables straight out of the garden and understanding viscerally how different their flavor can be, even from the same foods at a local supermarket — the deep red color and the sharp, clear taste of oak leaf lettuce. She knows from husband’s experience in food transportation that it can take days for greens to get shipped to a market and put on the shelf.
And though she knew local farmers markets, coming to the farms directly has also made a difference. It has shown her a wide range of ingredients and flavors. Dominic Palumbo at Moon in the Pond Farm in Egremont forages for juniper berries — and even in midwinter the farm store carries lamb, baby spinach, sweet winter squash, wildflower honey, shallots golden beets …
Many people may find more growing locally than they realize, she said, and for longer stretches of the year. She and Rob thought about organizing the book by seasons, but the truth is that many crops will stretch across months. Farmers are finding ways to expand their growing season, with tunnel houses and greenhouses.
She also keeps her own local ingredients all year long. Her freezer is full of blueberries, many she picked in Becket around the corner. Potatoes and beets and parsnips can keep all winter, and she has baskets of apples she picked in the fall that will still make sweet and flavorful pies.
When people come to a farmers market, she wants them to understand why they may pay more than they would at the store — if they do. Local food at local markets may not cost more than produce shipped to a supermarket. But when it does, writing this book has given her a stronger insight into the work that goes into it.
It’s new territory for her, walking these fields. She is from Chicago.
“I grew up as a city kid,” she said, “on the pavement, and it was an eye-opener to learn about sustainable (farming) practices.”
She found the difference stark and clear between small farms here and the commercial agriculture she had known. When a monoculture farm grows only one kind of crop, like miles of Idaho potatoes, or a factory farm raises hundreds of chickens, the product they end up with feels to her like a completely different food. A newly dug potato or a fresh egg tastes completely different — and a chicken who has grown outside in the fields is a wholly different creature.
Here in the hills, where the days can be cold and wet into late spring and the growing season can be short, many farmers use land for pasture, she said. She has talked with farmers about the animals they raise.
At Climbing Tree Farm, just over the line in New Lebanon, N.Y., Schuyler and Colby Gail raise heritage breed pigs outdoors in their woods and fields. And they put thought and care into their pigs’ experiences.
“Their concern for their animals is so great, they think about each creature,” Bildner said.
They think about each day of their lives, including the last one. She finds a conversation in Schuyler’s farm blog that has moved her strongly and stayed with her.
“We’re taking lives for our consumption,” Schuyler writes, “and it’s not something to be taken lightly. We respect our animals in life, and we are thankful to them in death.”
‘We’re taking lives for our consumption, and it’s not something to be taken lightly. We respect our animals in life, and we are thankful to them in death.’ — Schuyler Gail
After talking with local farmers like the Gails, Bildner understands why her son has always encouraged her to pick local over organic farms, if she had to choose. Local farms often follow sustainable practices, she said.
As she talks with farmers, she feels their concern about the environment and their commitment to the land — and literally to the earth.
“I grow soil,” more than one farmer has told her.
She has increasingly met farmers who practice regenerative agriculture to rebuild soil and restore its fertility. Many of them are using stricter practices than certified organic farming calls for, she said, even if they are not certified, because the certification process can be complicated and expensive.
Many local farmers practice no-till or low-till farming, she said, to nurture the soil and keep from disturbing it. The soil will hold its structure, resist erosion and hold nutrients.
It will also hold carbon more efficiently, rather than releasing it into the atmosphere, and so it can help in slowing global warming.
One of the biggest challenges for many small farmers, she said, is to find affordable land to begin with. It is hard to find land to farm or financing to buy it. Renting land is expensive, and improving the soil takes time over many years. And it can be hard for a farmer to put in that kind of time and investment if they are not sure how long they can stay.
They also face challenges in infrastructure, she said, and distribution — in getting the food they raise and grow into the hands of people who want it. Farmers who raise meat are facing a lack of slaughterhouses certified to process it. And she recognizes the work it takes to get local food to local markets.
In Covid, some farmers are building new resources and networks online. Some are building up their own websites, she said, to sell direct. Farmers markets are putting together online ordering and volunteer delivery drivers. Some are townwide and some, like Roots Rising and Berkshire Organics, have stretched across the county.
And she and Rob are finding a growing number of ways to buy from the farms themselves. This summer and fall they have led tours to explore farm stores and farm stands in the Berkshires and Pioneer Valley — Moon in the Pond Farm in Egremont, High Lawn Farm in Lee, Cricket Creek Farm and Ioka Valley Farm in Williamstown, North Plain Farm in Great Barrington …
Not all farms are set up for visitors, she said, and it is often a good idea to call ahead, but farms that sell directly to customers will want people to come by.
Some have seen a shift in Covid, she said, especially early on. Palumbo at Moon in the Pond Farm saw a rising number of people in the spring when Covid first hit, in March and April, when supermarkets closed or saw shortages in their supplies. Local farms had foods available when shelves were empty and long-range shipments were not coming in. Some farmers saw and felt a new awareness of their work in the community.
Now Bildner sees a need to sustain it.
She feels strongly about supporting local businesses, she said, not only farms but local restaurants, especially in covid and in winter. For many it is hard to survive on takeout and food to go. And they are still making the effort to source their ingredients nearby.
On a below-freezing morning, you can pick up a breakfast sandwich from Dottie’s Coffee Lounge with sausage from Climbing Tree … and know where it began.