New Agricultural Learning Center to Resurrect Farming at UMass

BEN STORROW Staff Writer  

July 24, 2012

AMHERST – In an effort to give its agriculture students practical experience, the University of Massachusetts announced Monday it is moving forward with plans to open a new Agriculture Learning Center at the former Wysocki Farm in 2014. In a nod to the university’s past and future, school officials said the new center would fulfill UMass’ founding mission as an agricultural land grant college and reflects the growing nationwide interest in agriculture. Approximately 200 students will grow every type of crop produced in Massachusetts, including cranberries, on the 40-acre property, they said.

The project involves moving two buildings to the North Pleasant Street farm – an 1894 horse barn and the Blaisdell House, formerly the original farm manager’s residence. No new construction is planned. Officials pegged the cost of moving the barn and converting it into classroom and office space at $5 million, while costs for moving and renovating the Blaisdell house are still being developed, they said.

Stephen Herbert, director of the Center for Agriculture, said UMass students today graduate with a good academic understanding of agriculture, but with little actual farming experience. “Looking isn’t the same as doing,” Herbert said, noting that the new center will provide students with an opportunity for hands-on learning. The Stockbridge School, the university’s long-standing school of agriculture, is geared toward agricultural research and thus does not provide the same opportunities as those to be offered at the new center, he said.

The barn, among the last remaining agricultural structures on campus, and the Blaisdell House now sit next to the physical plant on Commonwealth Avenue. Officials said the two buildings will be sited in the northwestern section of the Wysocki Farm along North Pleasant Street. Dennis Swinford, director of campus planning, said the project fulfilled several different needs for the university.

“This is the last barn on our campus,” Swinford said. Moving it up to the 40 acres on Wysocki Farm “saves the barn, starts the agricultural learning center and uses a site near the middle of campus,” he said. Zoning out UMass does not require planning or zoning approval for the project because the school is maintaining the property’s agricultural use, Swinford said.

The plan will require the approval of the Conservation Commission to make sure it is compliant with wetland regulations, he said. North Amherst residents who enjoy walking on the property will continue to be able to do so, he said. All access to the property will be from North Pleasant Street, with a small 20-car parking lot situated next to the homestead and barn and a second access point next to an existing UMass parking lot on the property’s southwestern corner.

Swinford said the introduction of buildings to the Wysocki property, which is in use now as a hay field, should not alter neighbors’ views. Furthermore, there should be no discernible increase in smell or noise related to the farm operations, as livestock will be situated along the property’s southern edge next to a parcel of UMass-owned forest.

A public meeting to present the project to neighbors will be held at 6:30 tonight at the UMass police station. The new center’s operating costs will be paid out of the university budget, said UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski, while private fundraising is expected to cover the cost of renovations to both buildings, he said. Money to move the barn has already been secured in the form of a $500,000 pledge from the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, he said. No firm timeline has been set for moving either building, UMass officials said.

Herbert, who grew up on a dairy farm in New Zealand, said he has long thought about ways to make the university’s agricultural course offerings more hands-on. “I said a hay field so close to campus is not the best use of the field,” he said, noting that the plans for the new center have been in the works for around a year.

The center would serve as a recruiting tool for future students and a venue to hold public workshops on agriculture, he said. “I want it to be a showcase learning center,” Herbert said. “I want people to be proud of it.” The vast majority of the 40 acres will be divided among different agricultural uses, Herbert said. There will be pasture space for livestock, an orchard, a small golf green for turf management, as well as areas dedicated to permaculture, vegetable production and growing agronomic crops like wheat and barley.

“This will expose student to many different types of farming,” Herbert said. Food grown at the site will be sold, but where it is marketed will be determined by students and teachers, Herbert said. “Agriculture has become more important on campus,” Herbert said, noting that interest in agriculture courses has increased substantially in recent years. “This will be a great thing for students.”

The center’s projected opening date is 2014. But Herbert said he is hopeful that some aspects of the new center will be up and running by next year to coincide with the university’s 150th anniversary. That would be a fitting tribute to a school whose founding mission was, in part, to enhance agriculture in Massachusetts, he said. “It would be nice, from an agricultural point of view, to have the center started by next year to help celebrate that event,” Herbert said.

Copyright 2012, Daily Hampshire Gazette, All Rights Reserved.

For more information, see: UMass Agricultural Learning Center

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For information on the Sustainable Food and Farming Program in the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture, see:

  1. 15 credit Certificate Program
  2. Bachelor of Sciences Program
  3. What are our graduates doing now?
  4. Editorial: Return of Mass Aggie

The B.S. degree is quite flexible and you can focus on sustainable farming, permaculture, medicinal herbs, policy and advocacy, urban agriculture, farm-based education, etc.   For details, contact Professor John M. Gerber, Program Coordinator.

Its a good time to be an aggie!

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