Gathering Inspiration in Western Mass

October 6, 2017


One part road trip, one part study, one part roving feast with friends is how we chalked up the 2017 Farm-Based Education Network Learning Journey last week. In its third consecutive year, this tour has been a time for attendees to gather ideas and build community among Farm-Based Education Network (FBEN) members. We had high expectations for this fall's journey to Western, MA, and each stop surpassed our hopes.


One highlight, as always, was the people! Attendees came from a variety of programs and states, including North Country School in Lake Placid, NY; City Green in Trenton, NJ, Retreat Farm in Brattleboro, VT; Manhattan Country School in New York City; The Livestock Conservancy in Bovina Center, NY, Grow Food in North Hampton, MA, Newton Community Farm in Newton, MA, Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockton, Chip In Farm in Bedford, MA, Loomis Chafee School in Windsor, CT, Southside Community Land Trust in Providence, RI, Flourish Farm in Brimfield, MA, and others. Altogether 24 attendees traveled from six states for the tour. All brought notepads, questions, and a desire to learn from one another.


Just Roots


Just Roots’ mission is to increase access to healthy, local food by connecting people, land, resources and know-how. The city-owned community garden and farm is located on the old "poor farm", where families who had fallen on hard times would live in an apartment house and grow and harvest from the fields. Today they operate a jail to farm program, providing formerly incarcerated men with job skills and jobs; a vibrant community garden, including a large wheelchair accessible plot; and a commercial CSA, which partners with doctors to provide food insecure families with CSAs.


Staff Well-Being
Just Roots has a 12:00 “Feastival” every Thursday, when staff and crew joins together to eat lunch. There’s no work tak allowed, and it’s a festive time to get to know one another as whole people


Community Garden

Just Roots Community Garden hs 67 starter plots. There are shared tools, washing infrastructure, water, and composting. A 20x20 plot costs $30. Through the “Recover Project” a community health center has a plot. The rules are that the garden plot must be kept at 50% cultivated plants. The Community Garden is governed by several shared “circle”s. The Community Cirlce, Shed Circle, Garden Circle, and Commons Circle. All of the leaders of the “circles” have signed up again to lead, that’s a good sign! They work by consent.


Some community gardeners have events - such as a cohort of herbalists that host workshops in their space.

We started with a trip to Just Roots in Greenfield, MA.


Supported Farm Share

Just Roots’ “supported farm share” is a core of their work. It’s a power health intervention. It’s the largest SNAP enrolled program in MA. They have a USDA grant to study the health benefits of CSA shares. 1 of 11 grants were awarded. Partners include Mass General and Harvard, with letters of support from two major insurance companies. They’re studying the impact of providing CSA shares to families through this three-year, $250,000 study. The researchers' hope is that they can prove that participating in community supported agriculture shares improves health outcomes for families, and therefore should be seen as a treatment approach and should be paid for by insurance companies. This would be a win for families (fresh food!), for farmers (more customers!), and for the healthcare system (lower costs through prevention instead of treatment!) Learn more about this study, or about other vegetable prescription programs in other communities. Just Roots idea is that the CSA prescrpition model will shift habits more than the veggie-prescription model. The CSA is an ongoing program and a piece of community that families partake in.


At their “local food clinic”, Just Roots aims to provide wrap-around services. The CSA is delivered to low-income housing sites, and while there, people can get cooking tips, health and dental screenings, and there’s music to keep things festive!


High school students help with local food demonstrations at food pantries. High school students do the layout and design of recipes that are written in collaboration with a nutritionist. Recipes are being compiled into a cookbook! The recipes are 15-minutes or less to prepare.


In surveys of participants, they heard again and again that the CSA share needed to come to the people.. “That would be a blessing,” people told them. So that’s what they’re doing.  A mobile CSA pick-up. And as a result, they’ve had just a 2% attrition rate. They’re exploring how youth can be involved with the CSA share, and have an idea that kids can deliver the CSA shares to families by red-wagon.


Jail to Farm

Just Roots’ Jail to Farm Program has been successful. Men can gain college credit through participating. Some have gone on to work at the farm, and to teach in the jail once they have left.


Healthy Snacks in Schools

Just Roots ran a Healthy Snack Market in schools which was very successful but difficult to fund. They would have 2-3 educators there, and would have three stations in a room: a research, station where kids would sample and then vote  on their preferences, a cooking station, where an ingredient was transformed, and one more. The face-to-face contact with Just Roots staff over 7-years led to really successful relationships, where kids trusted the staff. They would be excited to try new things. After 7 years, staff decided to take a break, but they hope to find additional capacity to run the program again.


Brookfield Farm


Brookfield Farm is a 120-acre mixed farm with 25 acres in vegetable/soft fruit production, a small livestock operation (beef cattle and pigs), pasture, hay, and a woodlot. All of the produce of the farm is grown for the Community Supported Agriculture (C.S.A.) project, which sells 525 shares on a yearly basis. The farm is managed along (non-certified) biodynamic and organic lines and is economically self-sustaining. They offer apprenticeships to those people who are interested in being students and practitioners of sustainable agriculture, and work with students from the local public schools through bringing them on visits to the farm and running farm-based education lessons at the schools. Our group will meet with Leila Tunnell, who was a farm apprentice 2014-2015 and still runs many facets of farm education and farm-to-table cooking at the farm.


Leila Tunnel is a farm-based educator who offers educational programming at Brookfield Farm. Leila walked us through a field trip she offers to students about nutrient cycling. We covered a lot of territory as we dug carrots, fed the greens to the pigs, collected pig manure, deposited the manure in the compost, dug into a finished compost pile, and joyfully spread compost on a cover-cropped field where veggies will be planted next year.  Once back at the wash shed, we put the carrots we had harvested into the big root veggie washer, and cleaned them off before snacking on them as a group. The field trip was fully hands-on and beautiful in its simplicity and focus.


Leila’s background is in music education and she includes a lot of song and movement into her field trips. We loved her attention-getting technique of a call and response combined with a silly movement. “Hey hey, look at me, make yourself look just like me” (Strike a pose!) .  With carrot greens atop her head, nose, etc, she definitely got our attention.


To share what plants need to stay alive, Leila walks through different things. Often young students won’t say, “space”, so she’ll crowd everyone into a circle and asks kids, “Do you have room to grow?” It’s a visual, kinesthetic way to learn that plants need space just like people (along with water, air, sunlight, and soil!)


Nuestras Raices


A history of the land at Nuestras Raices starts with the indigenous communities that lived there. The Sisters of Providence owned the land for a time, and donated it to be used for community farming projects, including Nuestras Raices, meaning “Our Roots” in Spanish. Today the Sisters of Providence are dedicated to social justice, and our host described how uninsured people can receive treatment at their hospital.


The Nuestras Raices farm was built in 1992 out of a participatory community planning process in which many of their community gardeners expressed a desire to grow food not just for themselves, but to grow for a market, and begin an agricultural business. Our host, Neftalí Duran challenged us to think about the systemic causes of inequity in our food system - from slavery, to federal and state policies, economic injustices that have fundamentally prevented people of color from accumulating wealth over time, to the lack of access to land and healthy food markets for many populations.


At Nuestras, many of the farmers and community gardeners are from Puerto Rico, and grow products that are difficult to find in the few local markets that exist. Neftalí urged us and our organizations to stay attuned to policy work, to stay in touch with our congressional delegations, and to follow the work of HEAL Food Alliance, The Union of Concerned Scientists, and National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. At a time when many farmers’ markets accept food stamp benefits and many markets offer “double value” to those who use their SNAP benefits there, it’s critical that food security programs such as SNAP don’t get cut from the Farm Bill.  He also encouraged the group to follow Soul Fire Farm and  consider attending some of their on-farm programming. The Nuestras staff was in the process of propagating Paw Paw seeds -  a fruit tree native to New England, but with a large fruit with a tropical flavor! Growing food at Nuestras is an act of rebellion, an act of food sovereignty, and an act of self empowerment.


But, Neftalí said, “We’re not going to ‘community garden’ ourselves out of hunger and poverty, we need policy changes.”


Neftalí shared how simple shifts in language can impact how we think about communities that are systemically oppressed. For example, people of color in poor communities are often talked about as, “needing opportunities.” In reality, the whole picture is that “they were and are denied opportunities.” Understanding that difference invites people to look at issues from a systemic approach.


Like others, Nuestras Raices knows that bringing food to the places where people are is a best practice, so they have a mobile market van which they use to transport their produce to community residents.


Learn more about Nuestras’ food justice work through their Youtube Channel:


Holiday Brook Farm


A fourth generation farm with 1300 acres of forest and farmland, Holiday Brook Farm grows premium-quality foods, offers hiking trails and animals to visit, a farm store with their own products and others, firewood for sale, and their famous "Black Gold" compost, hay and straw. Families who vacation at the farm, or just visit for a day have numerous activities to choose from, and opportunities to take home a taste of the farm. They have high demand for spring field trips to their maple syrup operation.


Day one of our journey concluded with a hay wagon ride through Holiday Brook Farm, a 1300 acre family farm in Dalton, MA. They raise Belted Galloway-Angus cross beef, veggies, pigs, Black Gold Compost, and last year, produced 1500 gallons of syrup. While they may say that education isn't a core component of their operation right now, they have customers on the farm all the time, and a high demand for sugaring field trips. While much of the fields are in perennial grass for hay and grazing, farmer-owner Dicken Crane is experimenting with sowing a straw crop and pasture mix at the same time. He says he can take first cut of straw, which is sold for $10/bale, then the hay mix comes in after that.



Greenagers, through its paid employment programs, internships and apprenticeships, engages teens and young adults in meaningful work in environmental conservation, sustainable farming and natural resource management. Middle schoolers and high schoolers engage with service projects of building raised beds in people’s backyards for their use as gardens. Every full cost raised bed subsidizes one for a family who cannot pay. The crew sets out on a spring weekend with a truck full of supplies and can construct 10 beds in one weekend. The program has some parallels with Vermont Youth Conservation Corps. Youth are paid, and this conveys the message that society values their labor. Recently they’ve been able to sell and construct 20 raised beds for paying families and another 20 for non-paying families.


This model is exciting and ripe for growth but Director Will Conklin has tried to be methodical and thoughtful about how the organization grows in order to ensure sustainability.


Berkshire Botanical Garden


Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, MA was founded in 1934 and is currently a 15-acre botanical garden with horticulturalists, educators and more on staff. At its founding, one main goal was to show people how to build victory gardens. Today they work with pre K - teens and adults. They are open year round and people can visit casually or as part of a Horticulture Certificate Program. Today they promote native plants and sustainable landscape design. They also offer a popular organic vegetable gardening class for which people drive from up to two hours away.


“We’re trying to bridge the gap between ornamental horticulture and agriculture. Our whole mission is for people to grow more plants and be thoughtful in how they do it,” Education Director Chris Wellens said.


For youth, they offer field trips and are trying to work with students in depth over time.  About 6 years ago they started tracking their impact with students through, “contact hours” instead of number of students served. They also brought animals in. They have a rabbit who is like a staff member, and also provides a nice connection to fiber arts. A few educational beehives are always popular with kids, and with bee suits on, kids go right into the hives to work with the bees. Kids work on building projects with staff, also, and a cider press is one example of a project they completed together.


Students attend an afterschool program all year and have a farmers’ market stall as a “capstone” project. The money raised is donated to a charity of their choosing. If the charity has personal significance for a child, they try to encourage support of that one.


Berkshire Botanical Garden runs “Roots Rising” which is a farm-based youth farming and development program. The program is based around meaningful work. Youth go to various farms and work on projects. The farmers are instructed not to create any menial tasks, rather to task them with real work that is truly helpful to the farm. The students are paid a $1000 stipend for their work. They’ve had 12 spots and 80 applicants, for them, and each applicant gets an interview, because they know that building interview skills is important for the youth.


Once enrolled in the program, Roots Rising uses a communications tool called, “Straight Talk” to give feedback, encourage self-knowledge, and help people understand that giving feedback is an act of love. Jamie Samowitz, Youth Education Coordinator learned about Real Talk at a Food Project Institute, and encourages all to learn more about it.


Currently, Berkshire Botanical Garden is being called into school collaborations when schools are working on enhancing their socio-emotional emphases. The Department of Education is very focused on that and recognizes the Garden as a tool for schools.


Fairfield Farm at Hotchkiss School


Across the school, Hotchkiss is trying to bring a systems thinking approach to sustainable solutions. They use a biomass heating system with woodchips, and are trying to find developmentally appropriate ways for teens to engage with sustainability.


Each day at Hotchkiss, they serve between 900 and 1000 lunches. The farm and a desire to have exemplary local sourced food is a catalyst for where the farm wants to be in the future. The farm is also a catalyst for fundraising. People who haven’t given before are excited by the expansion of Fairfield Farm.


The farm is run by Ellie Youngblood, a Hotchkiss alumna, and a team of dedicated students who have opted to farm as their required sport. The option, called FEAT (Farming, Ecosystems, Adventure Team) is wildly popular and Ellie has had to “make cuts”. Ellis said she’s constantly impressed by the students’ enthusiasm, and how act as advocates for the food once it arrives in the dining hall.


“It’s still shocking to me how much the students love the farm,” she said. “It’s the place, the physical labor, and getting to be away from the intensive academic setting and that competitive edge.” Recently more and more academic classes are coming to use the farm for a variety of subjects.


The farm produces 6-7% of the food that's used by the dining services, and sources approximately 80% from local farmers (within 30 miles). We met the Sodexo dining manager, a self-proclaimed "data nerd" who tracks every penny and is constantly striving to see how his company can have the strongest impact on farm viability in the Berkshire region. Each summer they host grad students to do a full economic impact assessment of the system. Through contract growing, Hotchkiss is able to help local farmers scale up their production.


In the teaching kitchen at the farm, they don’t teach recipes, they only teach ratios. It’s more experiential, and gives students core cooking skills while building confidence (i.e. 1-2-3 pie dough).  The students also make products with the farm’s goods, like candles and lip balm, which the development office often purchases as gifts.