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Community Care through Farm-Based Education: A Virtual Tour of Four Programs in Massachusetts

Updated: Dec 5, 2022

Farm-Based Education Network Learning Journeys provide windows into farm-based education programs and an opportunity for exchange: we get to both ask questions and share experiences through conversation.

Learning about programs from the people who run them brings them to life in a way that is hard to glean from a web page or newsletter. While we put together an itinerary and descriptions of each site, we never really know what ideas will resonate or what connections will take flight.

On September 30 to October 1, FBEN led a tour through Western Massachusetts to visit four programs, all of which offer rich connections between people and land through agriculture. We left with lots of images: chard leaves glistening in the sun, farm residents pressing cider under white pine trees, and dairy cows awaiting their turn at the milking machine. But not surprisingly, it was the people who left the biggest impression on me, as a farm-based educator at Shelburne Farms and Coordinator of FBEN. We met people with unwavering commitment to creating meaningful work experiences based on their audiences’ strengths. We know photos won’t do justice to the programs and people we encountered, but we hope you’ll come along on this photographic learning journey, using the reflection questions we offer after each "visit” to gather insights of your own.

Great Barrington, MA

High Spirit Farm fulfills an essential need for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities by providing meaningful work, a dignified home, and a rich social and cultural life. Their farm-based education is work-based and centered on their residents’ strengths.

“It’s not about production, it’s all about community, having a good day, and contributing to each other’s lives,” Lesley Eshelman, householder and farmer, shared with the group. “You’ll notice our rows are spaced a little wider, more space for our bodies. In the greenhouse we can be in here until November or December. We like to be comfortable.”

From making comfrey salve to turning compost by hand, staff and residents at High Spirit Community Farm learn alongside each other as they follow people’s interests. “We do all our compost turning by hand, that’s an amazing job for people. Someone who may not love seeding and transplanting may love pushing a wheelbarrow,” Lesley shared.

“Animals are a really great bridge to human interactions,” Brett Kane, Co-Director of Development and Community Engagement described. Alongside its human residents, High Spirit also has cashmere goats, chickens, and kunekune pigs, and a couple friendly farm dogs who roam the grounds. Caring for the animals is a popular activity for residents: they offer friendship, daily ritual, and, of course, humor.

The staff who work here are often interested in agriculture, but don’t necessarily have a background in it. In that sense, the farm has become a laboratory. “If you’re interested in it, let’s find a way to make this happen,” Courtney Santasero, Co-Director of Development and Community Engagement said. High Spirit’s employees are a reminder that there is no single pathway to a career with farm-based education. Our hosts, Brett

Kane and Courtney Santasero, joined High Spirit as Householders in 2021. Brett’s background is in teaching and serving as a residential director at a college. Courtney’s background is in restorative practices. Lead farmer Lesley Eshelman worked as a social worker with people experiencing homelessness, and then at a dairy farm, before joining High Spirit.

The story walk located outside one of the homes wove the reader through several raised beds where Three Sisters garden crops were planted. The book, In the Garden With George Washington Carver, told the story of Dr. George Washington Carver helping children with their school garden, showing them how to restore the soil and respect the balance of nature. “The wooden raised beds weren’t always here,” Lesley explained. “The beds create a nice visual guide for where to walk. Putting them in made a huge difference psychologically.”

At a closing circle, we learned more about the values that guide High Spirit Community Farm. “We put our relationships first. That’s the center of what we do here,” Courtney explained. She shared what their values look like in action–belonging, spacemaking, responsibility to hold people up, celebrating difference–and asked us to reflect on our personal values around community and caring for vulnerable community members. “How do you listen to someone who uses their voice differently than you do?”

  • How do you create physically comfortable environments, so participants are ready to participate and learn?

  • What values have you learned from a community you’re part of, and how do you integrate them into your work community?


Monterey, MA

Gould Farm is over 100 years old, and is the first residential therapeutic community in the nation dedicated to helping adults with mental health and related challenges move toward recovery and independence through community living, meaningful work, and clinical care. Guests receiving treatment participate in all aspects of the farm’s daily work, such as caring for animals, tapping trees to make maple syrup, baking bread and making cheese from fresh milk.

We started in the gymnasium, then passed peaceful ponds, residences, and a dual purpose barn that serves as a bicycle shop three seasons of the year and as a maple sugarhouse in the spring.

“The connection to meaningful occupation provides structure and gives a shared reality. The meaning of the work is around sustaining the community,” Nathan Yaple, Work Program Director said. In a pole barn adjacent to the sugarhouse, guests were splitting firewood that would be delivered and organized.

“This is an invitation into meaningful work, where we ask, what does it mean to show up to work mindfully?” Nathan said.

The opportunity to participate in mindful work alongside dedicated staff is an obvious strength of Gould Farm. That sense of purpose emanates from their campus: the cider press and pasteurizer await their turn to be used, the cows relax in the lush pasture, and the cheerful staff joke, “Keep moving before someone puts a tool in your hand!”

Of course not every guest wants to split wood, grow veggies, or bake bread. They have opportunities and choice - essential ingredients for farm-based education programs no matter the audience.

When Garden Manager Mel Hochstetler asked guests recently what they were most proud of about the gardens, they answered, “We give the kitchen everything they want.” She described bringing the kitchen peppers and garlic, wintertime sprouts, cut flowers, orchard fruits, and more.The garden is productive and offers many benefits to the community. “It’s balancing the science and health of the plants with the human element and how to engage people from therapeutic angles,” Mel said. To help prioritize this therapeutic approach, they are transitioning their mechanized production systems to hand-scale operation, which creates more accessible work opportunities.

Gould Farm is also producing their own biochar and building pasture health with the help of a grazing consultant: just two ways they're enacting their mission of care– caring for people, and also for the living systems we’re interconnected to.

  • What opportunities for “meaningful work” exist on your farm? What does “meaningful” mean, and how can you get input from participants on what is meaningful to them?

  • How do you learn what your participants are most proud of, and how do their responses shape your understanding of your program?


Ghent, NY

On Friday afternoon we turned our attention to another model of farm-based education and visited one of the founding members of the Farm-Based Education Network in 2006, Hawthorne Valley Farm. Their educational offerings, farm, and on-farm enterprises coalesce under their mission: to renew soil, society, and self by integrating agriculture, education and art.

At 900 contiguous acres and staffed by over 250 people, Hawthorne Valley was the largest operation we visited, and the thoughtful care they dedicate to their educational programs was evident across the campus. Matt Davis, Co-Director of Children's Programming, started our visit by sharing that the farmers and students' roles are to help the farm function like an ecosystem.

“The rule of the garden here is to give to the garden more than we take.” This means that students are heavily involved in making compost, and sometimes limits are set on how much of a crop can be harvested (sorrel, in particular, would be quickly consumed if kids had free reign).

The garden Matt tends with students is a laboratory for understanding long-term effects. During visits to the garden from the Hawthorne Valley School across the street, students build compost piles with wheelbarrows and ramps (a great sensory kinesthetic movement that they have to coordinate with another child), and experiment with decomposition by burying a pair of cotton underwear in the piles! They make predictions about how fast the underwear will decompose, and investigate the finished product at intervals throughout the process. And there’s plenty of time for underwear jokes!

Another cycle the children follow is making a broom from broom corn grown in the garden. They each harvest a stick from the forest in the springtime, strip its bark, then sand it smooth. Throughout the summer, they tend the broom corn plants that were seeded by the students a year above them. In the fall they harvest the broom corn, save seed for the next year’s group, and assemble their brooms. It was inspiring to see a beautiful craft from the land come to life through students’ dedication and work.

  • Where is an example of a place on the farm where participants have an opportunity to give more than they take?

  • How can you integrate humor to your work?

  • In your programs, how do you decide what to offer: long term projects on repeated visits and short term activities on one-time visits, or something in between?


South Egremont, MA

Partnership was the theme that resounded through the farm at April Hill, where the teen-focused sustainable farming and resource management program Greenagers is based. Sarah Monteiro, April Hill Farm Director, welcomed us on a drizzly Saturday morning and described the way their multipurpose spaces are shared. The historic house is used as office space by multiple organizations, and its modern plumbing is appreciated by Appalachian Trail Ridge Runners who come off trail every week or two. The newly renovated Blue Barn transforms from a pottery studio to a woodshop to an event space to a lunch shelter, depending on what group is using it in a given week.

“It’s a little bit like controlled chaos here,” Sarah described. “The partnerships mean we all have to be flexible with each other, and we have to be that way anyway when we work with youth.”

Sarah is a self-described “recovering production farmer,” which means Greenagers’ production garden is organized with consistent bed lengths, and that helping students make seeding and harvest plans comes as second nature. She asks a lot of their youth employees, and coaches them as their responsibilities grow throughout the season. Employees are between the ages of 14-24 years old and are paid $14.50-$21/hr depending on the age and skill level. Summer youth crew make $14.50 and crew leaders make between $18-$21 with a few being salaried/FTE with benefits. In any position, one of their most important tasks is observation. They take field walks together, which Sarah leads at the beginning of the season; by the end of the season, the youth employees lead them.

“The youth do everything on the farm. There aren’t any tasks that I ‘gatekeep,’” she said.

The food produced at Greenagers is sold at one farmers’ market and donated to local food security initiatives.

While production goals are important to Sarah and her team, having fun and prioritizing care are priorities.

“Even if they don’t become farmers, I want them to leave here having enjoyed work and being outside.” This means they’ll seek hydration and shade on the hottest summer days, may use wheelbarrows instead of tractors, or a bike-powered root washer, for example. “It’s not the fastest or most efficient way to wash roots, but it’s the most fun,” Sarah describes.

The complexity of being in a community with many established farms and training new farmers is not lost on Sarah. “It’s hard to teach someone to farm, and to not know if you can bridge them into having their own farm in this community.” An added layer is the lack of affordability in the area: farmers are unable to access land (because the cost is so high) and many of the younger farmers can't afford housing costs.

  • How do you practice flexibility with the partnerships you’re engaged in?

  • When working with youth over time at your site, what farm tasks can they take on so you can support them in holding more responsibility?

  • How do you balance efficient production with fun and care for your participants and staff? Do you and the staff you work with share an understanding of how this balance may play out on a day to day basis?


Across the sites, themes of care and partnership emerged over and over again. The people we met demonstrated deep care for the individuals they serve, as well as the land they’re in relationship with: giving more to the garden than they take and practicing agricultural methods that sequester carbon through building healthy soils. Because these farms are all teaching farms of one kind or another, these values of care reverberate beyond the physical borders of the farms. Through learning journeys like these, we too can be inspired to bring these values into our own programs.

One final area of care we witnessed was care of coworkers. Even when you have healthy land and animals, viable seeds, and market demand, Sarah reminded us that a successful operation always comes back to the people you work with. “You’re only as good as your staff. Nothing great happens alone.”

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