Valley Bounty: Berkshire Sweet Gold Maple Farm
Daily Hampshire Gazette, March 1, 2021.
For those who like the concept of “think globally, act locally,” putting it into practice can be challenging. Janis Steele and Brooks McCutchen, owners of Berkshire Sweet Gold Maple Farm in Heath, have found a way to live that mission to the fullest.
McCutchen grew up in Heath, working on a maple farm for a time. Steele is from Quebec, “the maple capital of the world,” as she describes it. Together, they’ve been producing maple syrup on 95 acres in Heath since the 1990s, and it’s been their sole livelihood since the early 2000s.
Meanwhile, through their organization Island Reach, they spend half the year working with indigenous farming communities around the world to develop alternatives to the devastation of extractive agriculture, particularly in Vanuatu in the South Pacific.
“Farming and our work with Island Reach don’t separate too easily for us,” McCutchen says. “It’s all about the politics of food.”
Steele and McCutchen met in college studying human ecology, which investigates the relationship between humans and their social and ecological communities. Both went on to earn doctorates, hers in cultural anthropology and his in clinical psychology, and worked in those fields for a time. As their awareness of global ills expanded, food system transformation became their chosen leverage point for action.
“High-volume, low price point, commodity agriculture has been clearly identified as one of the greatest drivers, not only of climate disruption, but also of the collapse of species, ecosystems and cultural diversity among human communities,” McCutchen says. “Our work with both Berkshire Sweet Gold and Island Reach is about fighting that.”
How? By modeling a different way of farming — small-scale “agroecological” farming that works with nature’s systems — and coordinating with others to spread that model.
In Heath, Berkshire Sweet Gold practices agroecology by leaving their woodlands wild. “We don’t trim or thin anything,” McCutchen explains. “Instead, we’re trying to demonstrate how to extract a livelihood from a wild ecosystem without drawing down its biodiversity.”
When it’s time to produce syrup, they embrace natural variance, producing unique batches of syrup that capture flavors and colors that can change by the hour.
“The minute maple sap leaves the tree, dozens of competing microbes start fermenting it and changing its character,” McCutchen says. “Fermentation increases with temperature, so on a single day with a large temperature range we can go from extremely light (or less fermented) syrups that taste like vanilla to really dark syrups with heavy and robust flavors. By capturing those differences in different batches, we create barrel after barrel of syrup with completely different taste.”
When sap comes into their sugarhouse, they use reverse osmosis to remove up to 60% of its water content, then transfer it to their evaporator. “By running our evaporator with a shallow amount of sap and cycling it in batches, we minimize toasting the syrup and preserve each batch’s unique qualities,” McCutchen says.
To market their single-batch syrup amid a sea of commodity blends, Berkshire Sweet Gold leans heavily on direct sales, usually at markets and fairs up and down the East Coast. Here, they build relationships with customers in person, offer tastings, and teach the science and history of maple sugaring to explain what sets them apart.
“As maple syrup has become commodified, it’s been reduced to four grades — light, medium, dark and black ambers — and those are mostly achieved by blending to create a uniform product for global distribution,” McCutchen explains. “We want people to see that’s not the only way things are done. That would be like having only boxed wines, rather than thousands of local vintages.”
Says Steele, “We try to recharacterize maple syrup as a much more diverse product — and therefore much more useful. Growing up in Quebec, it would be part of all kinds of dishes, from meats to legumes to vegetables.”
With COVID shutting down the in-person markets they usually visit, the couple has switched to mail-order sales, offering $10 shipping anywhere in the US. Since their syrups aren’t graded, orders are placed by phone so customers can describe the qualities they’re looking for. Overall, they say, this has worked, and demonstrated an encouraging level of customer loyalty and support for the farm’s values.
While the success of their business is important to Steele and McCutchen, they don’t lose sight of the larger context.
“People love talking about the benefits of small-scale agriculture and direct marketing — being an entrepreneur and having meaningful relationships with customers,” McCutchen says.
“It’s a great story, and I think a better life. At the same time, there’s an explosive global crisis of bio-cultural collapse going on, and agriculture is in the thick of it. Right now, large agriculture corporations own the narrative that only they can feed the planet, while the so called ‘alternative’ groups are fragmented. If our focus is too local, we can’t build the political power we need to fight this catastrophe.
“We need to figure out how to take these local lessons and reach across cultures to transform economies and support localism at a bigger scale, around the world. Getting these fragments aligned, that’s a tall order. But grassroots organizations like La Via Campesina and others are doing it, empowering small-scale producers to face these huge challenges collectively.”
Adds Steele, “The knowledge we’ve gained in the forest, in the marketplace, and our work through Island Reach all points to coordinated, small-scale, local agriculture being the solution.”
As another sugaring season arrives, Berkshire Sweet Gold Maple Farm continues to embody that solution and share what lessons they can.
To learn more about Island Reach, visit islandreach.org; to learn more about the science of maple sugaring, check out berkshiresweetgold.com/science–heritage.html; and to find more local food near you, visit CISA’s searchable online guide at buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).