It is no mystery that the Shakers, along with their ardent dedication to a simple life of work, took pride in their land. Every corner of Shaker earth maintained a proud functionality. Whether it was for the purposes of pasturing, growing or covering, the Shakers were the forefathers of ecological responsibility and sustainable agriculture.
Hancock Shaker Village once again is taking the message of land and sustainability to heart by offering food to the Berkshire community. The village has joined the ranks of the 20 or so area CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) that span the region from Bennington, Vt., to Sheffield, in offering fresh vegetables, eggs and other goodies throughout the June-October season.
According to HSV marketing director Laura Wolf, starting a CSA just made sense.
"The idea for the CSA has been forming for some time and, in fact, has been many years in the making," Wolf said. "The concept has been suggested by staff, board members and visitors and over time, many factors came together to make it possible. Last year we began selling produce from our gardens through the Village Store, and increased the amount of HSV produce used in the Village Harvest Cafe. Response was very positive, as people are paying more and more attention to where their food comes from."
The decision to become a CSA, like most decisions made on a farm, was not a whim.
"We’ve been getting ready for the last four or five years with cover crops such as rye and oats and buckwheat, which is a substantial compost," he said. "We use water from the reservoir for the old garden and we’ll use drip lines in the new garden if we need to. The original Shaker garden is about half an acre, and we have added another acre and a half. It has all of your basic garden veggies; there’s nothing really exotic. A lot of the produce is from our heirloom seeds I’ve been saving year after year and package them and sell them in the store. We did add some modern crops, but they’re still all heirloom peppers and tomatoes. Anything the Shakers used to grow back then. We also have some mixed lettuces for our early crop, and radishes and cucumbers.
"This is sustainable agriculture; that’s why we’re doing it."
Mangiardi is no stranger to the daily intricacies of operating a farm. In addition to his duties at the village (which include managing the animals as well as the vegetables), he also has a farm in Lanesborough that includes 115 head of cattle. The work, he said, is not for the faint of heart.
"I’ve been a farmer all of my life," he said. "I like everything about the farm-to-table movement. Everything has a cycle; you take care of the animals first, then the land. I hold everybody and myself to a much higher standard here. We are a museum still; we are on display and we have to know that.
"There is a saying that it is a ‘pleasure to walk through a Shaker pig pen.’ That’s what we expect here."
Combining the role of a living history museum with that of a CSA is, according to Wolf, not a far stretch for the village, which has done much over the last 10 years to reach out to the outlying community as both a place of innovation and education.
"HSV has been recognized as a leader in the museum field for our pursuit of alternate revenue streams that augment more traditional income areas such as visitation and fundraising," she said. "The new CSA is a great example of creative thinking about our business model, while maintaining a strong connection to our core values and mission. As an outdoor history museum bringing the Shaker story to life, agriculture has always been an important part of our daily interpretation. The CSA will help our visitors to draw a connection between historic Shaker principles and our 21st century lives."
Wolf said that nearly 70 households, many of which are single or two-person families, already have purchased their share from the village. In fact, all 2011 CSA shares, which include many heirloom varieties such as the yellow pear and the red squash tomato as well as Shaker potatoes and herbs to name a few, are sold out. If this is going to be the dominant trend for the CSA, Mangiardi said that expansion is inevitable.
"We are definitely looking to expand," he said. "I’m not sure if I’m going to hire two good part-time farmers or one full-time farmer to know when the crops are due and to oversee the garden. Everybody takes a chance with this kind of thing. We did have the tomato blight a few years ago, but last year was a banner year. Now we’re fixing fences and getting the cows out to pasture even though there’s still snow on the ground."
In addition to the fence fixes and managing the arrival of several baby animals over the past few weeks, Mangiardi said that thankfully he has had some outside help with getting things going and growing. The Pittsfield High School horticulture program as well as veteran volunteers from Soldier On have both donated their time and their greenhouses to the CSA effort. They will continue their work by assisting the HSV garden staff in transplanting the seedlings and getting their hands in the dirt (and weeds).
"You have to love it to do it," he said. "The Shakers were useful and straightforward and everything was utilized, especially in farming. People ask me why I never go on vacation, but honestly I’m on vacation every day. That’s not so much a Shaker thing as a farming thing."