What would the town of the future look like, if we could imagine it? In a world beset by an ongoing pandemic, increasingly devastating climate change, and overwhelming social inequities, can we even begin to think of how we could improve? Well, thanks to the team at Balco Partners, an experiment to transform the Berkshires is taking place in real time.
“We’ve put together an international group of partners to deal with local issues that have international import,” says ecosystems entrepreneur Barbara “Bobbi” Koz Paley.
Paley is a co-founder of Balco Partners, a firm focused on pulling together talent to advance the health revolution through holistic approaches to wellness, economy, and environment. Paley’s legacy of using cultural events to pioneer messaging about racial and climate justice, which she has done as CEO of Art Assets and in numerous leadership roles in the cannabis industry, has been taken to the next level with a revolutionary enterprise in the Berkshires.
Balco Partners Introduces Berks Forward
Balco Partners and a cohort of innovators are cooperating on numerous initiatives to amplify the region’s dynamic nature. Berks Forward, their communications program, will help focus the area’s community voice around clean water, air and land development movements. It’s time to recognize the Berkshires for what it is - a place where agriculture, commerce, culture, diversity and opportunity meet.
According to Paley, the thrust of the messaging will be equality. “We have to have better economic systems, better healthcare, better access to clean food,” she says, noting that Berkshires residents have been cultivating the region’s distinctive culture and environmental practices for generations. Tremendous history lives in each part of the area, and from the local organizations who have been fighting General Electric’s pollution of the land, to the Berkshire Innovation Center (BIC) and other groups’ foundations for high-tech solutions to industry, it’s clear that there is fertile ground here, literally and figuratively, for new social and scientific advancements to sprout.
Balco Partners: Industrial Hemp and Regenerative Agriculture in the Berkshires
Balco Partners seeks to address immediate planetary and social equity issues in the Berkshires.
Phase one: Plant Industrial Hemp on the region’s farmland, and use both the crop and “living soil” with regenerative agriculture practices to clean the land of toxins and reestablish healthy growing patterns. The plant’s soil remediation abilities will provide a huge boost to the Housatonic riverfront and surrounding communities, particularly aiding the struggle against PCB chemicals and other pollutants infecting the waterways and food production pathways.
“In the Berkshires, we have been using our rivers as toilets for effluents, PCBs, PFAs,” Paley states. “We need to have our river to swim and boat in [and] to build houses on… [The Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Education have] innovation grants, so there’s a lot of money around the issue of re-education, of how we desecrated the land and how we’re going to clean it up, and how that cleanup impacts your ability to have clean food.”
One of Balco’s principals, Jon Jacobs, knows all about the links between healthy planet, healthy bodies, and economic advancement. An attorney who served 27 years in the EPA’s Office of Enforcement, Jacobs is now co-founder and director of the nonprofit Climate Spheres, which utilizes technology to activate solutions to climate change. He sees the Industrial Hemp project as being helpful in phytoremediation and eventually a bridge to developing greater industrial applications in the Berkshires such as hempcrete for housing construction.
“We want to work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, get to a net zero, if not a carbon negative location,” Jacobs explains. “But also work with the carbon markets, so that beneficial activities for climate change are financially rewarded and compensated. And that work, for example, will help farmers who have a vital role in our future, not just for food security but also the ability to sequester large amounts of carbon with better agricultural practices. It’s all tied together.”
Jacobs says the Balco team, in collaboration with BIC and other research organizations, is reviewing science behind Industrial Hemp’s ability to uptake heavy metals and chemicals from the soil.
The process indicates that hemp can remove PCBs in similar fashion. “So instead of having to, say, remove the entire river bank along the Housatonic that’s contaminated… we can instead plant Industrial Hemp and be able to extract those contaminants and pollutants from the soil.”
Balco Partners Develops Berks Forward Community with Lyfe Productives
Beyond Industrial Hemp, Balco will target the greater questions of uniting local organizations with larger movements through culture and economic development.
To that end, they have brought on Lyfe Productives, a social marketing and product development firm that builds campaigns and programs to jumpstart activism across governments, universities, city planning and the community. Run by internationally recognized artist and Stanford University instructor Ise Lyfe, Lyfe Productives is developing Berks Forward as an approach to socioeconomic justice in the Berkshires, and numerous initiatives designed to give locals more agency in their everyday lives.
Lyfe describes his work as “ways to make things that are good and healthy for people, really provocative and dynamic in the way that folks are engaged. And so when I first started connecting with [Balco in developing Berks Forward], one thing that had a real appeal around it was how we could not only lead with [Industrial Hemp], but also ways to intersect environment, arts and culture to deal with the preservation of the history of the area, [and] bringing the… township in a very integral way into the future. I think that balance is really important in what we see developing for cities throughout the country… Cities are just larger reflections of the human experience, [and] our human experience is one that our present is impacted by what happened before and what we aim to have happen in the future.”
When Lyfe first arrived in the Berkshires, he was immediately interested in discovering what lay outside the region’s affluent enclaves.
“It’s a misnomer that the Berks is… this white, wealthy monolith because that’s not true,” he says. “When we think about diversity, we often think only about race, but there’s also socioeconomic diversity… When we have a way to talk about the dynamic different ways that people live and the different backstories that people have, I think we find that diversity is everywhere.”
The Berkshires Fights the Climate Crisis
Paley observes that the Berkshires is perfectly situated, with its proximity to major cities and towns in New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, to be a center for clean industry and a tourist destination. Advanced technology as forged by BIC and fellow Berkshires-based organizations, “clean industry” that combines major ideas with services focused on small communities, and many assets unique to the area, are changing how the economy is run. It’s a ripple effect from the Berks to all the densely populated metropolises connecting to it.
“We need more accelerators,” Paley emphasizes in Balco’s plan to strengthen the area’s business reputation.
“I want a food accelerator incubator at [the historic working farm] Hancock Shaker Village. We need a hospitality one [also]… and new technology for housing… But we need a lot of different things to make this 3-million-person region very vibrant and an in-migration site.”
“Our whole crew is developing access and transportation, and bettering the way that people can move around in the region,” Lyfe mentions excitedly. “That will also impact people’s access to emergency transportation.”
Empowering people’s access to micro-mobility and all-income mobility will go a long way not just to improve economic equality, but to help engage them in the environmental conversation. Lyfe observes that Americans think of climate change as an “upper echelon” topic, but at the core it’s about identifying what the needs of various groups are and how we can trust each other to serve those needs.
“With both the pandemic and climate [change],” he adds, “other tragedies are coming into play… Everyone’s guilty of not fully embracing [their role in this]… As we look through the next 20 years of building an environment, building cities and towns through an environmental lens, we have the opportunity to foresee the potential for othering and blaming. [But we could come] to the table and deal with it in an equitable way… a smart way and in a way that was full of empathy and compassion… and with great courage, embrace the opportunities that come in this thing that we’re all obligated to participate in again.”
Increasing walkability, digital infrastructure and public art are additional avenues that the Balco team, with Berks Forward, will use to revitalize the region. They also look forward to transforming the Berkshires’ abandoned mills into areas of production for cannabis companies and sites that fuse culture and wellness.
Balco Partners' Call to Action for the Berkshires: Industrial Hemp and Wellness
Paley outlines her call to action clearly:
“One: Check out the Berks, because we are going to be the future of cannabis and wellness.
Two: We are the leading edge of Industrial Hemp remediation of all kinds. We're very interested in helping everyone understand how living soil on their property can create a better health solution for... how they live, whether it's their trees or their flowers, or their food that they grow and the same for farmers… We firmly believe that Hemp is an industrial tool that is going to help us as a new asset class [to] regenerate our land.”
And if this “centralized healing system” sees success, Balco aims to replicate it in other towns and regions across the world.
“It inures to the benefit of every person,” Paley concludes. “Every child, every animal, every living thing on this planet can be better if we begin the process of regeneration and giving everybody equity… So join us and let’s all do our part!”
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*A version of this article first appeared in Honeysuckle's FREEDOM print edition. Buy your copy now!