CONGRATULATIONS CLASS of 2022

Each year, I write the graduating seniors in SFF a little note to acknowledge and celebrate this exciting moment, this *threshold crossing* that is graduation.  

One of my greatest teachers taught me the importance of saying goodbye, and how too often we don’t pause to recognize endings.  Graduating college is a pretty big deal. Because of the finals, moving, commencement ceremonies, maybe complex family dynamics that can come with those ceremonies, new jobs, it can be easy to just move right along to the next thing. An author I love, John O’Donohue writes the following about thresholds:

“At any time you can ask yourself: At which threshold am I now standing? At this time in my life, what am I leaving? Where am I about to enter? What is preventing me from crossing my next threshold? What gift would enable me to do it? A threshold is not a simple boundary; it is a frontier that divides two different territories, rhythms and atmospheres. Indeed, it is a lovely testimony to the fullness and integrity of an experience or a stage of life that it intensifies toward the end into a real frontier that cannot be crossed without the heart being passionately engaged and woken up. 

At this threshold a great complexity of emotions comes alive: confusion, fear, excitement, sadness, hope. This is one of the reasons such vital crossing were always clothed in ritual. It is wise in your own life to be able to recognize and acknowledge the key thresholds; to take your time; to feel all the varieties of presence that accrue there; to listen inward with complete attention until you hear the inner voice calling you forward. The time has come to cross.

To acknowledge and cross a new threshold is always a challenge. It demands courage and also a sense of trust in whatever is emerging……”

Whether you are a transfer student or have been in SFF for the last 4 years, a secondary or primary major, you have completed ALL of the requirements for the Sustainable Food & Farming major….during a global pandemic!  

These last few years certainly have taught me, and dare I say all of us, how to behold complexity and grief.   While you certainly have learned a lot in the classroom and in the field, I have seen you embrace these difficult times with resilience, patience, and persistence.  We have been through a lot together these last few years. There can be a lot of pressure on college graduates to know “what’s next?!” and while each of you will be taking steps on your unique path, I do know this resilience you have been cultivating will follow you wherever you go.  May you find time, even fleeting moments, to feel what comes alive for you in this threshold crossing.   

I am excited for your next steps and hope you will stay in touch. THANK YOU for all of your hard work.  Wishing you a happy summer and happy graduation! CONGRATULATIONS!

Sarah Berquist

Professional Development in SFF

Back in March, the SFF advising team hosted “Searching for Jobs in SFF,” a Professional Development event aimed at sharing the nitty gritty details of what job-hunting in the field of sustainable agriculture and food systems looks like. Because Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems is an emerging field, there are so many directions and steps one can take to find and/or create good work for themselves.

We had a great turnout with about 20 students, peer advisor Alexeya O’Brien, and faculty members, including: Lisa Depiano, Sarah Berquist, John Gerber, Amanda Brown, and Nikki Burton. As a group, Sarah led us in an examination of relevant, current, professional opportunities across our four different concentrations in SFF (production, permaculture, food justice, agricultural education). We were lucky to hear from Amanda and Nikki about their experiences working in production, and what they look for when they are hiring…invaluable advice!

We then split up into focus areas, and did some small group analysis of two to three positions relevant to students’ current interest. Lisa led the permaculture group, Nikki led the production room, and Sarah and John led the Ag Ed/Food Justice group. As small groups, we discussed preferred and desired qualifications for different tiered positions. We identified reach positions, and made note of what type of experience we would need to gain, to obtain one of those reach positions in the future. Students brainstormed internships, and how to evaluate and advocate for fair pay while searching for an internship. 

Lisa and John talked to us about the importance of building relationships, and our community involvement. While this was an event aimed at covering the nitty gritty of job searching, we took some time to think about our core values because as Sarah reminded us, “we do our best work when our work aligns with our values.” The combination of applying practical job-hunting skills, with an examination of what is truly important to us, resulted in a meaningful night of thinking about what the future holds post-graduation. 

The nitty gritty nature of our workshop enabled students to take home some practical tools to help begin and organize their job hunt. Students left with a basic template to keep track of potential job opportunities, and a compilation of links to job databases with which SFF students have found success. The path post-college looks different for all SFFers, but having a conversation to know we are not alone in this process, and we have plenty of people to support us was a real benefit of this event. SFF faculty really care about their students, and our students really care about this work. The fact that students and faculty took time out of their busy schedules to come talk about jobs on a Wednesday evening on Zoom during dinner time is a testament to the caring and committed nature of both our students and teachers. Thanks for a great evening, SFF!

SFF ALUMNI STORIES…WHAT ARE THEY UP TO NOW?

Ever wondered what Sustainable Food and Farming alumni are up to? What job advice they have for current students? In the spring of 2021, SFF student and peer advisor Isadora Harper interviewed a handful of alumni to find out, and turned those interviews into two videos to share with all of you.

As an about-to-graduate SFF student, she wanted to know about their experiences in their current jobs, with job searching, and, perhaps most importantly, what paths they have taken since graduating. Their responses highlight the huge array of possibilities within this field, and represent some different pathways across the SFF focus areas: sustainable production, permaculture, food justice and policy, and agriculture education.  Whether you’re a past, present, or future student, we hope you enjoy these conversations!

WATCH VIDEOS HERE:

  1. SFF Alumni Share Their Paths After Graduation.
  2. SFF Alumni Share Advice for Applying to Jobs & Grad School

FEATURING:

Jason De Pecol: Urban Food Programs Manager at Denver Botanic Gardens

Lilly Israel: Sales Manager at Kitchen Garden Farm

Michelle Nikfarjam: Emerson National Hunger Fellow

Sarah Visnick: Owner of Zeigler’s Market Garden and high school English teacher

Zachary Zeigler: Owner of Zeigler’s Market Garden

CONgratulations, sff class of 2021!

SFF SENIORS, You did it!  What a year…

In my conversations and classes with SFF students this year, I learned so much about resilience, patience, and persistence.  Because the transition to remote learning (for our on-campus students) was so abrupt last year, there was not much time to prepare for what was about to unfold.  Teachers and students and staff had to quickly pivot and somehow still focus and be productive amidst uncertainty, loss, and injustice.  

The capacity to behold complexity, embrace change, and anchor in gratitude amidst challenge are all required to live a balanced  life.  Connection, community, and friendship are also essential in living a fulfilling life.   This pandemic year certainly tested our capacities to live balanced and fulfilling lives.  AND while it is not over, progress and improvements and hope are visible and palpable.  It feels similar to the cycles of hope and trust that unfold when we grow food or plants. It starts with a seed.  While we can follow best practices as growers, we also must remain hopeful and surrender to the plants and their capacity to thrive.

Keeping up with assignments, emails, and performing well on exams is already quite a lot.  Sharing a house with roommates, helping care for family, and navigating complicated conversations about COVID protocols is difficult. Reconciling political and protocol differences amongst family and friends is also difficult.  Add this on top of the already overwhelming demands of being a student… it is so difficult!  Many of you navigated hardships that perhaps went unseen.  While I don’t know the extent of what this past year has been for each of you, I do know it was hard.  I witnessed students showing up for each other in ways that kept me hopeful and clarified how important community is in order for us to thrive.  

Since SFF students are spread out across the globe, and this year’s graduation looks different than what you might have imagined, I’m here to remind you that you did it! AND you did it as a part of a larger community! You always will belong to the Stockbridge School of Agriculture Sustainable Food & Farming family.  On behalf of all of your instructors and advisors in SFF, we are so proud of your accomplishments and wish you the very best in your next steps…whatever they may be.  If you don’t know what your next steps are, that is OK! While financial pressures undoubtedly  persist, I hope you can take some time to celebrate your accomplishments and just be, even if only for seemingly fleeting moments.  Please stay in touch with me and each other.  Happy summer and CONGRATS TO THE CLASS OF 2021! 

-Sarah Berquist (she/her)

Program Coordinator, Lecturer & Advisor for SFF

SFF STudent internship spotlight

One of the grounding principles of the Sustainable Food and Farming program is that hands-on experience is one of the best ways to learn. Students are encouraged to seek out internships and practicums, and are able to work with faculty members to earn UMass credit while interning! Read about the experiences of some current SFF students below below.

Production-related internships:

Hussein’s Practicum at  Sunset Farm  

I’ve been working on Sunset Farm since September 2019, and I’ve loved every moment of it. It is a 10-acre plot, run mostly by elderly volunteers, and I am the only paid help, which means I do most of the lifting and physically-taxing jobs, but I don’t mind. The beauty of working here is that it is low stakes- it is a hobby farm- but I’ve learnt a lot. We grow over 40 vegetables, and countless cut flowers, and I am involved in every part of the process of farming. From sprouting seedlings in trays in a greenhouse, to plowing and tilling with a tractor, to transplanting, cultivating and hand weeding, to harvest and marketing. I was able to approach my job more critically through a practicum, getting even more from my fruitful relationship with Bill (the owner).

The practicum pushed me to detail and succinctly present my arguments about how we should change/alter certain things at the farm- and being prepared like that helped me convince Bill to implement my suggestions (whether that was wise or not is a different story). Bill is also flexible with working hours, he always tells me “I don’t care if you come with headlights at 1 am, just do what I’ve asked.” So to sum it all up, I learn a multitude of techniques, work hard whenever I want, and I can make mistakes along the way without too much of a consequence (as long as I don’t do them again!) He also allows UMASS students to run experiments on his farm, and is open (somewhat) to trying things differently… it is probably the best job I’ll ever have. 

-Hussein El-Shafei

Nicole’s Independent Study at Common Share Food Co-op 

My name is Nicole Hayduk, and I am a junior in sustainable food and farming with a minor in business and most recently have had the opportunity to intern with the Common Share Food Co-op. Last summer after bouncing around between different ideas of what exactly to do with my degree for the last two years, I decided to focus on finding an internship for the upcoming fall 2020 semester that could give me an idea of what the business side of agriculture and food looks like. Sarah Berquist assisted me with narrowing down some options that would fit in this field of interest and I was immediately interested in Common Share. 

            Common Share Food Co-op is a developing community and employee owned grocery store that will specialize in providing the Amherst community an attainable way to find local, fresh and affordable food. Currently, the co-op is still working on gaining member-owners, or people who have purchased shares to essentially invest in the business before opening an official storefront that will be located here in Amherst. 

            Since working with Common Share, I have been able to tie together the skills learned in my agricultural courses as well as those from business. Many of my tasks at the co-op such as generating activity on our social media pages or creating spreadsheets to document survey responses from member-owners have gone hand in hand with the material learned in my business classes. To be honest, the real life examples and uses of the material I am covering in my business textbooks definitely gives it more meaning, especially for someone who never considered themselves interested in “business”. Classes in Stockbridge have allowed me to understand the mindsets of many of the producers we are looking to work with, especially financially. Sometimes we look for partnerships in the area, and it is useful to have a basic understanding of who you are working with. 

            Overall, getting into an internship was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Before this, I always felt very lost with what I wanted to do with my degree, or even what I was even interested in. This experience has allowed me to try new things within the organization that I never even considered before. Most importantly, I have really enjoyed getting to meet people within our community (even if only over Zoom for now!) and working for something that benefits that community. 

-Nicole Hayduk

Theo’s Practicum at Astarte Farm 

After declaring a major in Sustainable Food and Farming only a couple semesters ago, I was eager to get some hands-on experience working on a farm over this past summer. In July, I landed a job working at Astarte Farm, a no-till/no-spray vegetable production farm right on the Hadley Common. I was absolutely thrilled to get my hands in the soil and to work alongside such a wonderful, supportive crew. With their guidance, I slowly started to gain confidence in the rigorous every-day tasks related to no-till farming, i.e. laying occultation tarps, attentive bed and soil upkeep, and careful efficient harvests. It was so exciting to constantly draw on and apply the knowledge I had learned during the previous semester in my Stockbridge soil science and permaculture courses to the farmwork. 

Faced with the upcoming fall semester, I dreaded having to abandon my work on the farm for a full course-load of zoom classes. Luckily, I was able to continue my work at Astarte as an Intern, receiving credit for my increased involvement in behind-the-scenes work on the farm. I worked with my managers and the farm-owners to devise a strategy aimed at converting compacted path space into productive no-till beds. After a fair amount of research into the best “layer-cake” mulch formula, we concluded that the best method would be to rely on a base-layer of cardboard, topped with a mixture of home-grown compost and leaf mulch to turn path space into rich, productive beds. Throughout this process, as a final project for my internship, I put together a short film outlining our mission and aspirations at Astarte. It was such an invaluable experience to interview and learn from the incredible farmers whom I look up to each day to become a better grower myself. I can’t wait to get back to get back to work on the farm this spring!

-Theo Eagle

WATCH Theo’s VIDEO about Astarte HERE!

You can see how students in Sustainable Food & Farming are engaging in their communities and gaining valuable hands-on professional experience. And having fun while doing it! There are many directions our students can pursue internships based on their interests within sustainable agriculture and food systems. If you’re a current student, talk to your advisor about how to set up an internship! Happy Spring!

-Sarah Berquist Program Coordinator &
Isadora Harper SFF Peer Advisor

how did sff students spend their winter break?

What were SFF students up to over winter break 2020/2021? Despite limitations of the continued pandemic, students made time for cooking, planning gardens, and definitely sleeping. Some students engaged in some pretty cool activities directly related to their studies and interests… read more below!

Braiding Sweetgrass Book Club

Over winter break, I formed and led a virtual reading group for the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer. 

I kept hearing about Braiding Sweetgrass in my classes and really wanted to read it. I noticed a similar desire among some of my classmates and figured a book club would be the perfect way to get the most out of it while also staying connected over the long break. It would also be a great way to utilize the skills and knowledge that I gained from my Agricultural Leadership and Community Education class. I put the word out and received a ton of support from my fellow students, teachers, and faculty. My gratitude goes out to librarian Madeleine Charney who was able to secure 15 copies of the book to give out to our group. 

In our 10 weeks together, a wonderful community emerged around the teachings of plants and the messages of love and reciprocity found in the book. One of the greatest strengths of our group was the diversity of ages between our members which allowed for an interesting range of perspectives. This experience taught me a lot about how to organize a group towards a shared goal and what it means to be a strong leader.

-Adam Finke (SFF & BDIC Double major)

Seed Saving Conference

Over winter break I attended the NOFA NY (Northeast Organic Farming Association New York) seed saving conference, which was housed within the general NOFA NY farming conference. The week included sessions such as Seed Saving 101, Seed and Plant Pathology, and Seed Activists and Not-For-Profits in the Northeast. These sessions, while informative on the actual process of seed saving, also emphasized the significance of the stories, history and culture behind seeds. Seed rematriation efforts were discussed, as were stories of growing and stewarding culturally significant crops. (Seed rematriation, put simply, refers to the return of seeds to their Indigenous seedkeepers; the removal of such seeds from Indigenous communities is but one facet of the legacy of colonialism in this country). It was impossible to leave the conference without some fundamental questions about my relationship to seeds rattling around in my brain. What seeds might my ancestors have grown? What plants do I feel pulled towards? The importance of history in the work of seed saving is almost always removed from the seed-as-industry equation. It was exciting to learn about all the people working to reclaim a regional and mindful seed system.

-Isadora Harper (SFF Senior)

Relevant links: Seedshed, Turtle Tree Seeds, Freed Seed Federation, Reclaim Seed NYC, Truelove Seeds

Exploring the Small Farm Dream Course

For my independent study, I took an MDAR (Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources) course titled “Exploring the Small Farm Dream: Is Starting an Agricultural Business Right for You?’”. I was mainly interested in taking this course because as a prospective future farmer, I wanted to know more about the business aspect of farming. All of the number crunching, marketing, decision-making, and paperwork for running a farm felt overwhelming and scary. Going into this course, I wanted to work to demystify this aspect of farming and to honestly look at whether or not running a farm business was right for me. 

The class ran mainly over winter break, meeting Tuesdays from 6-8. The coursework was split into four different sections: Assess Yourself, Research the Landscape, Assess Your Resources, and Make A Decision & Plan Next Steps. All of these steps were vital to helping me come out of this class more prepared and ready to take on the next steps of my life in farming. Before, I just had a vague, idealistic vision of a farm that I wanted to have some day. Going through homework, the worksheets, and chatting with my peers, it quickly became apparent that that wasn’t going to cut it. I needed to figure out what I wanted if I wanted to have a shot at farming — and farming well. At the direction of the workbook, and instructor Jennifer Hashley, I was encouraged to create a timeline of steps to help obtain my dream of running a farm. Coming out of the class, I feel more focused and energized on what I want to do — and the prospect of owning a farm business feels less intimidating!

-Annemarie Walsh (SFF Senior)

Alumni Panel: Voices of SFF grads

In November, several Sustainable Food & Farming alumni joined incoming freshmen & transfer students on Zoom to discuss “life after graduation”. These alumni represent the many different directions one can go with this major! The panel discussed their current work and what stepping-stones they took to get there, what their days look like in their current jobs (hint: varied! And hard to pin down!), and what strategies they use to overcome challenges in their field among other things.

Watch the highlights from the conversation here!

Meet the panelists: 

Jordan Lake (she/her): Currently a coordinator with the Student Farmworker Alliance, Jordan works with students/youth who want to organize in solidarity with migrant farmworkers. While in SFF Jordan was particularly interested in agriculture education, permaculture, and food justice. 

Will O’Meara (he/him): Will works with Land for Good, a group working on issues of farmland tenure, as the Connecticut Field Agent and recently co-founded Hungry Reaper Farm. Will’s area of focus in SFF was production.

Rob Carney (he/him): Rob came to SFF interested in holistic health and focused on the human side of farming. He now runs his own health coaching business, hosts a podcast, and writes children’s books on mindfulness. 

Megan Saraceno (she/her): Megan works with Grow Food Northampton as the Administration Manager and a Community Engagement Coordinator for their farm to school effort, though she emphasizes that part of non-profit work is being a little involved with everything. Megan focused on agriculture education and food access while a student in SFF.

I try to be honest with prospective Sustainable Food & Farming students when they ask me about careers in the field. This path isn’t very linear, nor does it guarantee a starting salary of $70,000. From alumni, colleagues, and friends working in food & farming, I know that it is hard but meaningful work. There are many opportunities in sustainable agriculture and food systems. There are jobs that have yet to be created…maybe by you?! The work each of these alumni are doing (and many more alumni not in this video…stay tuned for more!) makes our food system and our world a better place!

Thanks to Isadora Harper and Morgan Reppert (SFF Students) for support with this video & post.

-Sarah Berquist

Program Coordinator & Lecturer, Stockbridge School of Agriculture

Sowing seeds of climate action in the garden

The deeper into gardening you get, the more you see that you are really growing soil — which is a crucial carbon reservoir.

By Leah C. Stokes – December 27, 2020

Between the coronavirus and the election, 2020 blurred together in a haze of stress. But for the huge number of people who took up gardening this year, the seasons did not just slip by: They were measured in inches of plant growth.

In the spring, some seed companies saw sales spike up to 10 times normal. The 144-year-old company Burpee had a record year. Like weeds growing up through cracks in pavement, this trend was a reminder of all the ways life continues.

Continue reading Sowing seeds of climate action in the garden

teaching, learning & farming in a pandemic

Last spring, we all plunged into a great unknown, as our university transitioned to be fully remote in response to COVID 19 and its risks. This fall, the Sustainable Food & Farming students are studying mostly remotely, though as you can imagine some aspects of farming just need to happen face-to-face. Only about 1000 students are living on our large campus while others live off campus, or at home, across the US and across the globe.

SFF Senior & Student Farmer, Toni Graca making bouquets for CSA pickup

Our flexibility, adaptability, and strategies for balance have all been put to the test. It has been amazing to see our students, instructors and staff show up, adapt, and engage in this new online way of being. Many students join our program because they are seeking HANDS ON LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES.

Students volunteer gleaning excess produce from the UMass Student Farm organized by UMass Permaculture

So, what does that look like right now? Many students have continued working at farms either in the Amherst area or local to their homes. About 11 students are still working at the UMass Student Farming Enterprise to maintain their 100+ share CSA. Check out this video made my SFF Junior & Student Farmer Isadora Harper to see what that looks like!

Student Farm crew, fall 2020

Other students are working at the UMass Agricultural Learning Center to raise and process chickens & lambs. Want to go on a virtual tour of the ALC? Check out this video!

Tom Mirabile, SFF Alum & ALC Staff helps faculty Nicole Burton move lambs onto fresh pasture. Can you feel the EXCITEMENT?!

Many if not all of our students are working on their requirements remotely in online courses.

Leila Tunnell & Jennifer Reese from Amherst School Gardens virtually visit Sarah Berquist’s Agricultural Leadership & Community Education class via Zoom

It isn’t what we signed up for but we are making the best of it. Farmers need to be flexible to respond to the ever-changing climate and challenges that emerge in growing food and raising animals. Food systems advocates need to be adaptable and creative in solving complex problems that are ever-present in the work required for transforming how we grow, distribute, process, market, and consume food. We are all being tested and growing our capacity to behold the challenges, injustice, and uncertainty of these times. Fortunately, we are in this together, though it might be hard to remember sometimes. We continue reminding each other how to keep hope alive, how much the world NEEDS farmers, leaders, organizers, stewards, teachers, and change agents, and how TOGETHER we are a part of building/rebuilding the more just and sustainable food system we know is possible.

SFF Student & Student Farmer Hannah Bedard being radiant during early morning sunflower harvest

Congratulations class of 2020 sff seniors!

YES! You did it! We did it! Likely not the ending any of us were imagining, AND I our you all embracing it with resilience and grace.

Graduating is a threshold. It is a time when you leave one reality and identity (student) and new terrain and new opportunities await you. It can be overwhelming, anticlimactic, emotional, numbing, exciting, relieving and perhaps a combination of all of those things. It isn’t the same but one thing I can liken it to is a birthday, when someone asks “how do you feel?” and I really I feel the same. Yet there is a change in identity in aging from 21 to 22 or from 30 to 31 or from 66 to 67. Graduating seniors, you may not actually feel very different when you wake up tomorrow even though today you just GRADUATED! A big deal!

Maybe you will feel drastically different and/or maybe you will feel a slow trickle of change. However you feel, is exactly how you’re supposed to feel! In reflecting with some students I heard folks saying it felt anticlimactic to graduate. Especially now, seniors can’t get up on stage and be seen, acknowledged and celebrated by family and friends in the way their peers of 2019 did. While I’m amazed, impressed, and grateful for all the ways UMass is striving to celebrate undergraduates despite the circumstances, virtual celebrations are not the same. Yet, rituals of any kind can be an important way to mark a threshold crossing. So in tandem with engaging in these virtual events however you may be, I invite and encourage you to do something for YOU. Plant something, eat something, call someone, walk somewhere, have a fire, whatever that looks like for you, I hope that you are taking a pause to celebrate all you have done. Your instructors and advisors in SFF are SO proud of you!

CNS Virtual Celebration can be found here and Stockbridge BS Sustainable Food & Farm celebration can be found here. On those pages you will find videos (including a video from your SFF student ambassador Rhianna Zadravec!) and some really great photos of you! I hope you take some time to look at them and share with your families & friends. There also is a special video I made for your families here.

Adrienne Maree Brown’s principles of Emergent Strategy continue to anchor me in this turbulence. Sometimes I want an answer now, when is this going to end? When can I hug my friends and family again? And at this time, the principles that anchor me the most are: “Change is constant (be like water)” and “What you pay attention to grows.” It feels important to grieve all of the loss due to COVID-19. AND I believe in the transformative power of paying attention to delight and gratitude. I trust the resilience of each of you and know you will continue to do great work in this world. THANK YOU for all your hard work, for learning so passionately and teaching me. I see you and celebrate you as you cross this threshold to become a graduated human being! Best wishes in your next steps. May you & your loved ones be healthy and happy. Please stay in touch!