Category Archives: Farming

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)

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

For Young Farmers, Hemp Is a ‘Gateway Crop’

Repost from Civil Eats (great resource!) : Original HERE

After the recent legalization of hemp production, new and beginning farmers are following the green rush, though obstacles abound.

Asaud Frazier enrolled in Tuskegee University with plans to study medicine, but by the time graduation rolled around in 2016, he’d already switched gears. Instead of becoming a physician, Frazier decided to farm hemp.

“I was always interested in cannabis because it had so many different uses,” he said. “It’s a cash crop, so there’s no sense in growing anything else. Cannabis is about to totally take over an array of industries.”

Frazier doesn’t come from an agricultural background, but while he was growing up in Ohio, he watched his father become a master gardener. He also made frequent trips to visit relatives in Alabama, where his family owns a five acres farm. Today, he’s growing hemp on that land as part of a two-year pilot program for small farmers in the state.

“I love getting an opportunity to grow such a beneficial plant,” Frazier said.

A graduate of a historically Black college known for empowering African-American farmers, Frazier said he’s received the training necessary to thrive in agriculture. He has Continue reading For Young Farmers, Hemp Is a ‘Gateway Crop’

LISA DEPIANO, UMASS SFF Faculty featured on cover of local story about silvopasture

Lisa DePiano, a lecturer in the Sustainable Food and Farming Program at the University of Massachusetts, reseats a netting support around a young chestnut tree in the silvopasture demo lot of the UMass Agricultural Learning Center in Amherst on Wednesday, May 15, 2019.

Original Gazette article can be found here by Rema Boscov

It doesn’t look like it could save the planet — long grass dotted with 4-foot high chestnut trees, inch-thick trunks with a few broad leaves on short, thin branches, surrounded by plastic mesh tubes to protect them from the sheep not yet here. But it’s what you don’t see on Lisa DePiano’s research plot that gives hope. There’s carbon, lots of it, pulled from CO2 in the atmosphere, now sequestered in the soil — with more to come, explains DePiano, a Sustainable Food and Farming lecturer at the University of Massachusetts’s Stockbridge School of Agriculture.

This farming method, called silvopasture, is an adaptation of a very old agricultural Continue reading LISA DEPIANO, UMASS SFF Faculty featured on cover of local story about silvopasture

Women Who Dig…. How Cuba’s Women Farmers Kept Everyone Fed

Did you know that 60% of the students majoring in Sustainable Food and Farming at UMass are women?  Check it out here: https://sustfoodfarm.org/new_students/

Fernando Funes Monzote, 44, of Finca Marta, a 20-acre organic farm
In Cuba, women were an integral part of revolutionizing the way food was grown and distributed in the country.
Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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Cuba’s former agricultural system—large-scale, mechanized, and “modern”—relied on a steady flow of resources from the Soviet Union. Before 1989, the Soviet Union sent vast amounts of agricultural supplies, including petroleum, pesticides, fertilizers, and livestock vaccinations, to fuel Cuban production of cash crops such as sugar cane, tobacco, coffee, and bananas. The Cuban government prioritized the export of cash crop products and imported 80 percent of what the country consumed: rice, beans, grains, and vegetables. To the north, the United States enforced el bloqueo, an economic blockade against Cuba first established in 1960, prohibiting the flow of goods, including food and medicine, to and from the socialist island. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, severing the supply of food and farming supplies, Cuba woke up to a major economic crisis. Without food imports to stock the grocery store shelves, how would Cuba feed 11 million people? How would Cubans till the soil without diesel to run the tractors? How could farmers stimulate yields without synthetic fertilizers? Agricultural production plummeted dramatically. State farms and factories shut down. Livestock perished. Precious cash crops rotted in the fields and, as a result, revenue from exports crashed.

Continue reading Women Who Dig…. How Cuba’s Women Farmers Kept Everyone Fed

Industrial pig farms are not prepared for climate change

By Kendra Pierre-Louis     Sept. 19, 2018  – New York Times

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A hog farm in eastern North Carolina on Monday. The pink area is a lagoon of pig excrement. Credit – Rodrigo Gutierrez/Reuters

EDITORS NOTE:  The real costs of industrial agriculture are not included in the price of food.  We all pay for “cheap food” in pollution, unjust labor practices, and poor public health.  To learn about alternatives, check out our online Pigs & Poultry class!


The record-breaking rains that started with Hurricane Florence are continuing to strain North Carolina’s hog lagoons.

Because of the storm, at least 110 lagoons in the state have either released pig waste into the environment or are at imminent risk of doing so, according to data issued Wednesday by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. That tally more than tripled the Monday total, when the department’s count was 34.

Continue reading Industrial pig farms are not prepared for climate change

UMass’s First Carbon Farming Initiative Demonstrates How to Sustainably Grow Food and Mitigate Climate Change

UMass’s First Carbon Farming Initiative Demonstrates How to Sustainably Grow Food and Mitigate Climate Change

By: Lisa DePiano and Nicole Burton

The UMass Carbon Farming Initiative is the first temperate climate research silvopasture plot at the University of Massachusetts. Carbon farming is the practice of sequestering carbon from the atmosphere into soil carbon stocks and above ground biomass. Silvopasture, a carbon farming practice is the intentional combination of trees and livestock for increased productivity and biosequestration.

The plot is a 1 acre silvopasture system at the Agriculture Learning Center (ALC) that integrates a diverse planting of complex hybrid chestnuts systematically arranged to ensure ease of management for rotational grazing sheep. Establishment of the initiative has been funded by the Sustainable Food and Farming Program (SFF) and a grant from the Sustainability Innovation and Engagement Fund (SEIF) and is managed by Stockbridge School of Agriculture Faculty Lisa DePiano and Nicole Burton and SFF students.

According to Project Drawdown, a broad coalition of scientists, policy makers, business leaders, and activists that have compiled a comprehensive plan for reversing climate change, silvopasture is the highest ranked agricultural solution to climate change. Silvopastoral systems contribute to climate change mitigation both through the direct drawdown of atmospheric carbon into soil and biomass and through the reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions emitted by industrial livestock systems. With the growing demand for meat and dairy products, and the limited amount of land available it is essential that we identify agricultural practices that are part of the solution rather than exacerbating the problem.

In order to get to down to 350 ppm of atmospheric CO2, the safe amount of concentration of carbon in the atmosphere, we need to have NET Zero carbon emissions and remove 300+ billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere.Research suggests that silvopasture systems are capable of storing as much as 100 tons of Carbon (367 tons of CO2) per acre while adding the yields of tree crops to the existing animal systems, and ecological benefits like reduced nutrient runoff, erosion, and animal stress from heat and wind. Traditional silvopasture systems, such as the dehesa in Spain and forest pastures in Scotland, have existed for centuries but more research and development is needed for cold climate sites in the United States.

Some goals and objectives for this project are:

  1. Establish a concrete example of carbon farming. This example will function as an outdoor classroom for SFF and related courses as well as a demonstration site for farmers and policy makers.
  2. Trial different varieties of complex hybrid chestnuts looking for traits like climate hardiness, nut size and yield, disease resistance, and precociousness
  3. Test market for products such as chestnuts, chestnut flour, nursery scion wood
  4. Track financial implications of these practices such as: cost of establishment, ongoing costs, revenue streams, and CO2 sequestration per acre
  5. Empower students as emerging leaders in the cutting edge fields of Permaculture, carbon farming and sustainable animal husbandry.
  6. Conduct research and development to support regional farmers in adopting carbon farming practices and strategies
  7. Catalog the carcass yields of the pastured livestock
  8. Monitor and test parasitic loads with livestock
  9.  Track rotations of sheep

For more information on the Initiative contact Lisa DePiano at ldepiano@umass.edu or Nicole Burton at ngburton@umass.edu

Home is where the hemp is…

New York Times 

hemp
Russians sorting raw hemp fibers in the Kursk region in the 1960s. Hemp has been used as building material for millennia in Europe and elsewhere, but it’s only just starting to get wider recognition as a green construction option.

The Romans have been using it since the days of Julius Caesar, but not to get high. Both Washington and Jefferson grew it.

Now that several states have legalized the use of marijuana for some recreational and medical purposes, one of the biggest untapped markets for the cannabis plant itself — at least one variety — could be as a building tool.

The most sustainable building material isn’t concrete or steel — it’s fast-growing hemp. Hemp structures date to Roman times. A hemp mortar bridge was constructed back in the 6th century, when France was still Gaul.

Now a wave of builders and botanists are working to renew this market. Mixing hemp’s woody fibers with lime produces a natural, light concrete that retains thermal mass and is highly insulating. No pests, no mold, good acoustics, low humidity, no pesticide. It

Continue reading Home is where the hemp is…

Soil Power! The Dirty Way to a Green Planet

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The last great hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change may lie in a substance so commonplace that we typically ignore it or else walk all over it: the soil beneath our feet.

The earth possesses five major pools of carbon. Of those pools, the atmosphere is already overloaded with the stuff; the oceans are turning acidic as they become saturated with it; the forests are diminishing; and underground fossil fuel reserves are being emptied. That leaves soil as the most likely repository for immense quantities of carbon.

Continue reading Soil Power! The Dirty Way to a Green Planet

On our way to a “nation of farmers” in Amherst, MA

Michelle Chandler and one of her backyard meat rabbits

Michelle Chandler made a decision shortly after September 11, 2001 – she was going to be less dependent on fossil fuels and begin to live a more sustainable lifestyle.  The result is 100 rabbits, dozens of laying hens and a couple of milk goats in her suburban yard in South Amherst, MA.  Chandler quotes John 21:17, when Peter was asked by Jesus, “Do you love me?” Upon answering, “Yes,” Peter is instructed to “feed my sheep.”

Chandler’s “sheep” are her four children, ages 8 to 13, as well as neighbors and friends who enjoy the results of her bounty produced at Blessed Acre Farm and Rabbitry, where she raises several rare and heritage rabbit breeds – Cinnamons, Thriantas, Californians, Cremes d’Argent, Palominos, and American Blues.

According to an article in her local newspaper, those interested in raising rabbits should start with three, which would cost about $60 to get started. “For someone who wants rabbit on the table once a week for a family of four, you could realistically get by with one buck and two does,” she said. Then there’s the cost of building or buying hutches, at around $50 to $75 apiece, and providing the feed. A 50-pound bag costs $14.

Although her own property was far enough from the center of town to be exempt, Chandler was instrumental in helping to pass a new bylaw that allows up to 12 chickens or rabbits by right anywhere in Amherst.

“I feel strongly that Amherst will be better served by being able to feed itself,” said Chandler. “People are always going to be hungry, and if people have another food source, that’s a good thing.”

 One of Michelle Chandler’s close friends, Sharon Astyk, has written a book called “A Nation of Farmers” in which she claims raising your own food in the backyard must become a more common feature of the American landscape if we are to adjust to Peak Oil.  Chandler’s backyard has become a living example of this trend.