By Celeste Berg, Williams College
“I used to not care, but now every living, breathing moment centers around the relationship we’ve built with Williams,” says Bill Stinson of nearby Peace Valley Farm. Although I’ve volunteered at Peace Valley a couple of fall mornings with my cross country team, motivation struck to pay the place an educational visit, and thus I found myself winding along muddy Treadwell Hollow Road to the picturesque yet desolate three acre farm. Sitting at the wood table in his rustic kitchen and clutching a ceramic mug of coffee, Bill Stinson described the modest beginning of his partnership with Williams. Transactions began in the 1980’s, but at this point in time Williams was merely a “dumping ground” for Stinson: he would offer the college leftover produce, and when proposition corresponded with institutional need, the exchange was beneficial for both parties. Today, a much more developed symbiotic relationship exists not only via sale and purchase, but also between Stinson and members of the college. In 1990, Peace Valley hosted its first intern from Williams, and since then, the farm has seen over 60 student interns during the summer months. Involvement has been multifaceted: students have stayed for various lengths of time, some residing with Stinson and his wife while they work the growing season, while others have served as liaisons between Williams College Dining Services and the cultivator, a rendition of the reputed “farm to table” experience. Indeed, Stinson credits these students, current director of Dining Services Bob Volpi, and his own personal efforts with fostering the relationship between his small farm and the high-powered organization of which we are a part.
Posters scattered throughout our dining halls attempt to encapsulate Peace Valley with a glossy photograph and short blurb about what produce the farm routinely supplies to us, yet various student groups have also had the opportunity to connect first handedly with farmer Stinson and his land. Beyond team volunteering, a physical education class buses out to the farm a few times a week to assist Stinson, and a Williams orientation program, Where Am I?, highlights the farm when familiarizing new students with the surrounding Berkshire region. In fact, these freshmen get their own “farm to table” experience during the first couple of weeks of school: they harvest Peace Valley’s fingerling potatoes, which are then served in all the dining halls during a particular Harvest Dinner. As a Junior Advisor, I witnessed the tangible connection my freshmen made with their work on the farm and the contents of Mission’s dinner, and I was heartened by the intense excitement in their voices as they informed the rest of us that they, in fact, were the driving force behind the beautiful golden nuggets on our plates.
The tie between Williams and Peace Valley is, of course, quantitative as well: last year and the few preceding, the institution bought $35,000 worth of produce from the farm. This figure represents roughly 55% of Stinson’s output, and he sources the remaining crop to Berkshire Medical, seasonal farmer’s markets, and various restaurants in the northern Berkshire region such as Mezze, Hobson’s Choice, and Gramercy Bistro. It appears that Stinson forges a relationship with all transacting parties: a self-proclaimed foodie, he described the complex interplay that occurs between chef and farmer regarding produce quality and cost. Stinson’s culinary expertise was evident as I watched his eyes get dreamy over his mouthwatering fantasy of “firm turnips, sautéed in fresh olive oil with a little garlic and salt.” Indeed, dining at Williams during the fall and winter season has given me firsthand knowledge of Stinson’s delectable root vegetables, a cornerstone of his practice.
The wintry scene outside enabled Stinson to devote far more time to our conversation than if I had visited him during another season. A native of Northern California, I was curious about how farms operate year round in a not-so-moderate climate. The cultivation process is, perhaps unsurprisingly, much more compartmental: Stinson takes “off” Christmas through March 1, maintaining equipment and doing other indoor prep work while his hills are shrouded in snow. When spring hits, Stinson must hit the ground running, so to speak—the growing season is roughly 100 days long, and thus all farm planning and action must be timely. Although Stinson belongs to a loyal network of local buyers, he still faces the obstacles that plague most small farmers. He successfully faces the daunting task of using a relatively small, hilly plot of coarse soil to produce large amounts of crop, yet worries about competition, pricing, and turning a profit in this remote region. Indeed, Stinson repeatedly touted the benefit of cooperatives for small produce, dairy, and meat farmers: an overarching organization would be able to effectively negotiate transactions that would be economically feasible for large institutions such as Williams, and keep the farmers afloat via an assured market. My visit concluded with a tromp through the ice and snow, motivated by my desire for photographs—there is something eerily beautiful and melancholic about the quiet farm during winter—and a further connection with Stinson’s life work. I have a shirt that says “WTF? Where’s the food without the farmer?” and my visit to Bill Stinson’s Peace Valley Farm provided a definitive answer to this important question.