Category Archives: Farming

Draft Horse Power at Amethyst Farm

Bernard Brennan

Amethyst Farm was started over a century ago by settlers who wanted to farm in the fertile valley that has become the progressive town of Amherst, Massachusetts. It has always been a family farm, changing hands over the generations, while maintaining the charming qualities of a rural homestead. The property has offered its residents the resources to establish a quality of life that produces self-sufficient results, with a horse-boarding business and an indoor equestrian arena that pays the bills, while an extensive acreage of hayfields lays the bedding to comfort both the two-legged and four-legged residents. This land has provided the good life to many generations of Amherst agriculturists.
Now, a new generation of sustainable-minded farmers has moved into the old farmhouse, with goals of returning to a simpler way of living.
Bernard Brennan and his wife and children moved to Amherst from Connecticut last year, with plans of revitalizing the old farm and making it produce more than just shelter for purebred show horses. The Brennans want to construct a local economy using Amethyst farm as a community center for the families of Amherst seeking more than the intellectual rigors of academia. Coming from Yale where he was a Professor of Behavioral Ecology, Bernard wants to put the horses to work and reclaim the land. He sees this stretch of open pasture and small woodlot as an investment for his children’s generation, and his goal is to correct the incongruities caused by the elder generations whose cultural norms have led to peak oil concerns and social disparities that threaten future generations enjoyment of natural habitats.

Making Hay in May 2012

When he bought the 120 acre property, Bernard had never worked with horses before, although he did extensive research on the behavioral patterns of wasp species, that led him to appreciate the diverse mysteries of animals and their relationship with humans. When he came to Amethyst Farm, he decided that draft horses would be a key element to creating an alternative lifestyle that answered the problems of our dependence on fossil fuel. Horses have played a significant role in the founding of this country, and Bernard plans to reform this relationship with his own two hands on the reins. He bought two beautiful gray Percheron geldings which he harnessed up and hitched to a fleet of horsedrawn equipment that would otherwise be pulled by antique tractors. Pioneer welding is a company that produces modern farming implements for draft animal power, and Bernard has used his equipment budget wisely in purchasing quality-built equipment that will work the land without dependence on gasoline or diesel tractors. Last year, he plowed his garden beds with the team of Percherons and planted his family’s vegetable garden in that horse-tilled plot. Instead of planting the ordinary broccoli and carrots, he plans to grow crops that will feed his family in a holistic way. His first crop of rice was successful, and he plans to grow nut trees and shrubs along a one hundred foot long hedge row which will develop into a self-maintaining edible forest garden.
This winter, Bernard plans to drive the horses into the twenty acre woodlot and harvest enough firewood to heat the old farmhouse, instead of filling the tank with expensive, imported oil.

An important aspect of the Brennan’s farming enterprise is trading and bartering with their neighbors.  They believe that modern citizens of the world have grown away from our neighbors, and that in order to create a healthier world, we must befriend the folks on the other side of the fence, and share the bounties of our harvest.  Part of this mission has been the regular monthly potluck dinners that the Brennans have shared with other families and friends in Amherst.  They share homemade bread, meats, vegetables, and skills with each other, in hopes of building longlasting relationships that will heal the wounds of our alienating society.  Another huge philanthropic contribution that Bernard has made within his short residence in Amherst, has been the provision of land to the newly established Many Hands Farm Corps founded by Ryan Karb, Eric Day, and George Daniel Vest just this past year.  All he asks from Many Hands is a share in their organic vegetable CSA and some help from their crew weeding the garden.  Bernard hopes to incorporate the Many Hands apprentice program into his draft horse operations within the next few seasons, by offering some training and hands-on experience with the draft horses.  This would be a huge contribution to the farm corps that uses tractors on a minimal basis and depends on human labor as the primary source of energy in their growing of high quality fresh local produce.

Bernard shares a philosophy with Blue Star Equiculture founders, Pamela Rickenbach and Paul Moshimer, who believe that this country was built by humans and horses together.  Horses pulled the stoneboats that built the iconic stonewalls of New England.  Horses pulled the wagons loaded with supplies and equipment that settlers used to establish new towns and societies.  We owe horses as much respect and gratitude as our founding fathers and mothers.  Without them, we would still be gardening in our backyards with our hands, and we would not even be able to refer to tractors and trucks in measures of horsepower.

When I think of sustainable farming, I don’t think of John Deere and International Harvester.  I think of sweating and backbreaking work, and plows pulled by stoic equines.  Only when we as humans learn to appreciate our animal friends and take as much care of them as we take of ourselves, will we be on the right course to repairing the damage we’ve done to this world in the last one hundred years – and that’s a pretty short period of time, since we invented machines.  Horses have been working with us for six thousand years.  It’s time we remember that and follow in their hoof prints.

I want to thank Bernard Brennan for showing me around his barnyard and stables, and for taking on the hard work of reestablishing the great occupation of horsemanship.  One farmer and two horses can plow our fields back to the health of pre-European settlement.  And I think that is a utopian future to work toward.


After a grueling in-class test on the anatomy and physiology of animals, I got into my friend Amanda’s black Pontiac Grand Prix with her, and our friends Jocelyn and Dylan and did this fantastic interview in the car. Amanda, Dylan, and Jocelyn, and their friend Lila who could not make the interview are the founders of UMass Chicken Group. They are a student run club that teaches students how to raise poultry for meat. This semester they started with 15 chickens, which they hope will become 40 next semester, and raised them in a free range, pasture rotation, sustainable manner. It is a completely student run organization where students bring in guest lecturers, do all the labor themselves, and make all the managerial decisions. The group had a rocky start with a freak snowstorm and inexperience causing several deaths, with the help of the barn managers the group took off. By the end of this semester they had processed twelve birds and sold them to group members. They hope to one-day raise enough birds each semester to become part of the student run CSA’s and Farmers markets in the area. The one thing I could not understand, as a very inactive member of chicken group was what kept them going, for the 4 am barn checks in the freezing cold, and the daily maintenance that the chickens need. For each of them it was a different answer, Dylan loved the interaction with the chickens, and raising them, Amanda loved what a learning experience it ended up being, and Jocelyn thought that following your food from beginning to end, and seeing every step it went through was enlightening and fun. All in all Chicken group is a great, jusdgement free place to go and learn a little about meat production for those who want it. (pictured from left to right: Lila, Amanda, Jocelyn, and Dylan)

Chicken Group Founders learning the basics of chicken processing

Teaching Small Ones About Our World

I had the pleasure of walking around Small Ones Farm and interviewing Sally Fitz about her early childhood farm education summer camp. Located in Amherst, Ma, Small Ones Farm is probably the most adorable farm you’ve seen in a while, because it’s geared towards five and six year olds, everything is tiny.

Sally was a psychology professor before starting Small Ones Farm with her husband Bob and that is extremely apparent in the layout and management of the camp. Since the students are five and six years old, big open spaces, like a farm, can be incredibly overwhelming to them. Kids need clear boundaries and limits in order to feel safe and comfortable and receptive to information. The camp area is a small mini-farm with a wooden fence around it, this doesn’t cage the kids in, it allows them to see the bigger, working farm surrounding them, the beautiful fields and orchard, but also makes them feel safe.

Literally everything in the mini-farm is thought out and geared towards teaching kids how to nurture the world around them and see that they are a part of it. There is a “sunflower house”, sunflowers planted that grow tall and create a space for kids to go sit and be entirely surrounded by plants. There’s also a bean tunnel, where children get a different perspective of plants growing and also makes harvesting an adventure. Kids in the camp also learn about compost and plant cycles, and see firsthand that nurturing plants helps them grow.

Another aspect of Small Ones Farm program that I really liked is that it runs alongside a working farm so kids get to see what a farm looks like, what a farmer looks like (Sally mentioned that all the farmers make it a point to come eat snack with the kids). Also incorporated is a weekly visit from a scientist that comes to teach the kids about natural science in ways that are accessible to them.


Small Ones Farm is a beautiful, loving place. Not only do Bob and Sally have a CSA, they also sell honey, apple cider, pies, and apples at their roadside stand. It was really great to see that even in this time of economic uncertainty, there are still wonderful people out there following their passion and doing the good work that needs to be done.

Many Thanks to Sally for the adorable pictures of the camp when it’s up and running and for taking the time to talk!

Jennifer Hartley-Grow Food Northampton


Jennifer Hartley and her daughter, Lily

Jennifer Hartley, a Northampton resident, is one of the founding    board members of the non-profit group Grow Food Northampton. Jennifer’s interest in the project grew from her interest in food and the power of community agriculture in bringing people together, as well as her concern for food shortages and the state of modern commercial farming.

In 2010, GFN, driven by the commitment and energy of its fanatic members, waged a grassroots campaign to purchase 121 acres in Florence (formerly the Bean and Allard Farms) and start a community farm. The group set out to educate Northampton residents about their cause to rally support and raise funds, eventually reaching their goal and purchasing the land. The project was funded primarily by individual donations and received grant funding as well.  The City of Northampton pre-paid a 198-year-lease for the Florence Organic Community Garden portion of the site, which enabled that parcel to be purchased.

In the community garden, which will have its first growing season in spring 2012, individuals will pay a reasonable fee for a small plot of farm land.  GFN will not only supply this land for public use, but also will work to educate individuals on how to successfully manage their plot.

GFN leases land to community-minded organic farmers on long term leases. These long leases allow new farmers to make substantial investments in the land, making them feel truly connected to the land and promoting the development of operations that are accessible and educational to the public.

Grow Food Northampton is working to break down the barriers between consumers and farmers. Their commitment and values have driven them so far as a young organization, and with no sign of slowing efforts, GFN should prove to be a staple in the Pioneer Valley’s community food movement well into the future.


Lots of New Farmers in Massachusetts

The Boston Globe reported that after decades of decline, farming is resurging again in Massachusetts. New farmers are graduates fresh out of college, immigrants with farming backgrounds, or former professionals starting new careers.  From 2002 to 2007, the number of farms in Massachusetts jumped by about 27 percent.  That’s a reversal from the previous five years, when there was a 20 percent drop in the number of farms.  The start-up farms are smaller than the enterprises of the past.  For more….read the article here.