Seed Money: Area Philanthropist Harold Grinspoon Gives a Boost to Local Farmers

The Daily Hampshire Gazette. January 5, 2017, by Mickey Rathbun

Three summers ago, Longmeadow philanthropist Harold Grinspoon stopped by a farm stand in the Berkshires and struck up a conversation with the woman behind the counter. As they talked, she mentioned that she and her husband were having a problem with a stream nearby that was interfering with their water supply. “They were a nice couple,” he recalled. And he got an idea.

“I thought it was time to show appreciation for these solid citizens who work their behinds off for us,” he said. “They work with their hands, they face the elements. We have teacher awards and entrepreneur awards, so why not farmer awards?”

Grinspoon, who made his fortune in the national real estate market, is a generous and creative philanthropist who has pledged to give half of his wealth to philanthropic endeavors through his Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation. He reviewed his local philanthropy and realized that farmers are an important constituency who don’t often ask for help. So he created the Local Farmer Awards program, which helps farmers make infrastructure improvements.

For Grinspoon, the program has personal significance. He grew up in the Boston area in the 1930s. During the Depression, his family had a big garden and he sold vegetables from a wagon that he pulled with his bicycle.

The Local Farmer program launched in 2015. This year, 128 farmers applied and 47 received $2,500 each for infrastructure improvements. The Grinspoon foundation works with Community Involved in Sustainable Agriculture (CISA) and Berkshire Grown, two organizations that sustain and support local farmers. The directors of these organizations serve as advisers for the awards program.

“This program is unusual,” said Cari Carpenter, director of the Local Farmer Awards. “Other grant programs tie the money to specific projects, but this one lets the farmer choose what to propose. There’s a simple application process. Basically, we say: ‘Tell us about the project, how it will benefit your farm, how much money do you need.’ In most cases, farmers have already invested in their project but can’t afford to bring it to completion.”

How They Helped

On Dec. 12, 2016, the Local Farmer Awards program celebrated its second year at a spirited gathering at the Smith College Campus Center. Attendees included award applicants and recipients, program sponsors, and representatives from CISA and Berkshire Grown.

“This occasion is a good opportunity for networking and gives farmers a chance to meet Harold Grinspoon and other donors, and vice versa,” Carpenter said. “Harold wants to hear how the awards have helped.”

Philip Korman, executive director of CISA, said he was thankful to Smith College for hosting the awards event for the second time.

“Smith is a member of CISA’s Local Hero program,” he said. “Andy Cox, Smith’s director of dining services, has a solid record of using local produce.”

The event featured a spread of food and beverages supplied by local producers. Cheese makers included Chase Hill Farm in Warwick and Cricket Creek Farm in Williamstown. Vegetables were provided by Atlas Farm in South Deerfield, Old Friends Farm and Queen’s Greens, both in Amherst, and Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland, to name a few of the farms represented. Lavish trays of artisanal charcuterie came from the Meat Market in Great Barrington.

Black Birch vineyard in Southampton provided wine, and Easthampton’s Fort Hill Brewery provided beer, along with Jack’s Abbey in Framingham and Lord Hobo Brewing in Woburn.

A Good Time

Carpenter said the celebration has been the “most fun thing I’ve ever done for the foundation. The level of genuine appreciation is so high, there are so many interesting people, and the food is great.”

This year’s awards included a grant to Book and Plow Farm in Amherst for the purchase of a potato digger.

“The new machine has saved significant time in harvesting our two acres of potatoes,” said the farm’s manager, Maida Ives.

The farm’s potatoes and other produce supply the Amherst College Dining Services, and Amherst College students can participate in a work-study program at the farm.

Gerda Swedowsky and Peter Mitchell of Headwater Cider in Hawley received an award that enabled them to buy a plate filter, a machine that clarifies cider.

Dominic Palumbo of Moon in the Pond Farm in Sheffield produces a wide variety of heirloom vegetables and raises heritage breed animals for meat, including Scottish Highland cattle. This year, his farm received a grant that allowed him to repair “an ailing tractor” that he uses for making hay to feed the farm’s livestock. “It’s a major part of what we do on the farm,” he said.

Moon in the Pond Farm is an educational farm.

“We teach interns and apprentices the techniques of sustainable agriculture,” Palumbo said. “It’s important not to lose the hundreds of years of dedicated and intensive agricultural work that went into developing these diverse varieties of crops and animals.”

Following Up

The Grinspoon Foundation asks award recipients to report back on their experience.

“What most struck me when I read the reports was how many farmers felt that the award helped them finish a project in timely fashion,” Carpenter said. “Without the grant, the project might drag on for years, and it might interfere with other necessary work. With the award they can do it the right way, right now.”

The Foundation has partnered in this endeavor with Big Y and had the support of three sponsors, MGM Springfield, Harvard Pilgrim Health and H.P. Hood, to help fund the 2016 awards. A new sponsor, Sheraton Springfield Monarch Place, recently signed on to participate in 2017. Grinspoon says he hopes to get more corporate support so that more farmers can be helped.

Sean Stolarik, produce sales manager at Big Y, said he’s excited to be part of the Farmer Awards Program.

“Big Y has a long history of working with local farmers to market their products,” he said. “Everything we can get locally, we do it. We buy from 60 to 70 farmers and growers in Massachusetts, Vermont and Connecticut.” By supporting the program, he said, “Big Y is bolstering the farms’ ability to feed more people.”

Mike Devlin, director of grants and initiatives at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation, said, “We care about increasing access to fresh, healthy food for families. We know that farmers are essential to making that happen.”

Like the other sponsors in attendance, Stolarik said he enjoyed the opportunity to connect with local farmers.

“It’s so rewarding to see the passion and involvement. We want to do better for them and the community.”

‘Grow the Soil’

Halfway through the evening, partygoers gathered to listen to “Farmer Pitches,” 90-second talks by farmers about their work. Ten speakers were selected at random to pitch their businesses, addressing topics such as their core mission, what they love most about their work, the biggest hardship of the past year and where they see themselves 10 years from now. Each pitch earned a cash prize of $250.

Deb Habib of Seeds of Solidarity in Orange, who grows greens and garlic with her husband, Rick Baruc, said her core mission is to grow the soil. “We are working with nature to increase the life of the soil because soil gives life to all of us.”

Howard Boyden, of Boyden Brothers Maple Products in Conway, said maple production techniques have changed a lot since he was a child cleaning sap buckets for his grandfather. Looking ahead 10 years, he said, “I want to see myself growing old and mentoring young folks. My maple roots go back to the Native Americans. Maple syrup is in my veins. I can’t help it.”

Caroline Pam of Kitchen Garden Farm said she values the network of local farmers in the area, and urged people to join the Pioneer Farmers Google Group that provides resources and advice to local growers. She also expressed gratitude for the robust community support she receives.

“This isn’t a bedroom community where people just sleep and then leave to do their business elsewhere,” she said. “The people live here and work here and are committed to supporting local business.”

As the evening drew to a close, Grinspoon, the man who made all this possible, said, “I feel so good about this program and about being here tonight with all of you.”

Mickey Rathbun can be reached at

Applications for 2017 are open through Jan. 31. Applicants must be members of either Berkshire Grown or CISA. For more information about applying for a Farmer Award, visit