Thanks to Stockbridge Instructor, Nikki Burton, these Sustainable Food and Farming students in the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture learned to raise chickens on pasture this past summer at the Agricultural Learning Center.
On the first day of my junior year writing class for Sustainable Food and Farming majors at UMass, we were presented with the choice to work on a project either partnering with the League of Women Voters on a Sustainable Agriculture Expo or with Grow Food Amherst on a Seed Saving Workshop. Going into the class with basically zero familiarity on saving seeds, I decided to join that group in hopes to expand my knowledge. What I did not expect was that working on this project resulted in a meaningful experience for me, helping to develop my skills as a team-member, organizer, and also as a seed saver.
The 11 students in our group began our project by meeting with Phyllis Keenan, an Amherst community member and an experienced seed saver. We decided to organize a free workshop for community members at Amherst Town Hall about basic seed saving. Choosing March 31st as the date for the event gave us plenty of time to prepare our research and make arrangements for the event to be a success. Because many of us began this project with little to no knowledge of the subject, we spent time in the first few weeks of the semester researching and compiling information on what is seed saving, how to do it, and other topics associated with saving seeds.
As we progressed further along in the semester, we continued to meet with Phyllis and began choosing specific topics for each individual to concentrate on and present at the workshop. I was assigned to the topic of saving pepper seeds with my classmate Joe Cecchi. We also spent a good amount of time on conceptualizing the actual structure of the event, which I found to be the most difficult part of the whole process. Because each member of our team had different ideas of what the event would be, we worked to negotiate and decide on a vision that was agreed on my all members.
In order to attract attendees and enrich the workshop, we decided to feature Oona Coy, an experience seed saver as our guest speaker. Additionally, I was responsible for making the arrangement to reserve the room at town hall for our event from 7-9 pm on March 31st. To do this, I contacted Stephanie Ciccarello, the sustainability coordinator at the town hall, who was very helpful in securing the room for us and arranging other logistics such as table and chair setup and projector use.
Now that we created a framework and plan for our event, we concentrated on advertising the workshop to the Amherst community. As another homework assignment for our class, we all created press releases for our event. Because of this, we were able to select the best one and send it out to a variety of different media sources. Emilee, another member of the group, created a flyer that was printed and hung up on campus and in town. Other ways of advertising our event were through emails and word-of-mouth.
As the event drew closer, we began to organize specific details such as props and posters. Meeting every week in class was a useful way for us all to check in and help someone if they were having difficulties with their research, poster, or handouts. Before we knew it, the day of the workshop was upon us and we all arrived at town hall a bit early to help set up.
Not knowing exactly what to expect going into the seed saving workshop, I was very pleasantly surprised. We had a great turnout- basically every chair set up was filled with community members and students. Oona presented an informational and engaging talk on seed saving background and basic skills. Afterwards, attendees were invited to walk around to the different stations set up all over the room. Each station had a different topic from tomatoes to storage to a kid’s table. There were many materials to be taken home such as seeds, pamphlets, and catalogues. Also, each member signed a contact list that will be compiled into Grow Food Amherst’s database so the connections and community built at this event will continue. The event only lasted for 1.5 hours but it felt like much longer. So much information was exchanged, questions were answered, connections were made, and smiles were brightened.
Oona Coy presenting a talk on seed saving
Being at this event was exciting for me for two main reasons. First, after working all semester on this project and experiencing all the effort that was put into making the event a success, it felt great to have such a positive turnout and response from the public. While standing at my booth, I was able to engage in conversations with people I normally wouldn’t and spread information that is useful and people seemed to really want to know. Second, it seemed like everyone there was having a nice time and many people expressed gratitude to us for putting on this event for the community. Often times school work does not go beyond the classroom but by engaging in this project I was able to connect my studies with a greater community and share my passions with others, for which I am very grateful to have this experience.
Friends having fun at the workshop
After the event was over, we all packed up, said goodbye, and went home. Although almost a week has gone by since the workshop, the positive feelings I am writing about still resonate with me. I know that the skills I gained from this experience will help me work in groups to organize events in the future, and also to save many many seeds!
Here is a short video about the workshop.
For more events sponsored by my class, see: Writing for Sustainability Projects 2015
My camera is zoomed in on the woodpecker at the top of the tree. As I am about to snap the picture, it hops to another branch. I will never be able to get the bird back into focus unless I zoom out and start all over again. Sometimes it is better simply to start over from scratch. This is where I believe we are at with agriculture. As our target is now increasing New England food production to 50% by 2060 (1), we might benefit from adopting a new form of agriculture to meet our future needs.
One of the major drawbacks of our current system is that it sharply contrasts with nature’s desires, especially here in New England. We have to fight to grow our food, and nature is a persistent opponent. Getting to 50% will be a battle, but it doesn’t have to be accomplished at the expense of the environment. I believe that if we work with nature, we can overcome some of the physical constraints that we face when growing food. The next few paragraphs illustrate how I believe we are fighting against nature as well as make suggestions for a new sustainable agriculture that mimics how nature functions here in New England.
In New England we have forests but this hasn’t always been the case. In the 1800’s large tracts of forest were cleared to graze animals and raise crops. This seemed to work for a while, but keep in mind that by the early 1800’s we had already decimated the salmon population in Southern New England through a combination of damming, pollution, and overfishing(2). Yet eventually, the farms reverted back to forests as the land was abandoned. Clearing the land was necessary to grow wheat, rye, oats, and corn. They can certainly be grown or raised in some places in New England, however if nature is any indicator, then these crops should not be part of the long term solution.
More appropriate would be using trees as food, since they naturally grow here. Opposed to eating wood? Considering that you already eat wood pulp (3) in your processed foods, this really isn’t such a radical suggestion. However, I think reaping the fruits and nuts that they offer might be more popular. We wiped out our most prolific source of forest carbohydrates, the American chestnut (Castanea dentata), by introducing a fungus about a hundred years ago. Yet the American/Chinese hybrid chestnuts are viable substitutes for the extirpated species. You might even see some of these already at your nearby farmer’s market or Co-op. We also have oaks, which can provide plenty of carbohydrates as well.
It’s pretty wet here, with precipitation year round. All of this water leads to wet soils. In the past we have spent a great deal of effort draining these wet soils so that we could grow grass crops and graze cattle, both of which are generally more adapted to well-drained soils. Turning the beavers into funky hats helped to reduce the amount of wet soils, as the beavers’ dams raised water tables and slowed the amount of time it took precipitation to drain out of the watershed. Some consider them a keystone species, as they drastically alter habitats, which serve to influence the populations of other wildlife species. Perhaps we should take a closer look as what the beaver provides (4). The ponds and marshlands that beavers create are some of the most productive ecosystems that we have on Earth, more productive than both deciduous forests and agricultural land. Farming beavers may entice some more than others (I won’t give away my bias), but we can replicate the systems that they create by forming our own earthworks to catch and store water. We could then take advantage of the productive capacity of marshlands by raising crops such as wild rice (Zizania palustris) and cattails (Typha latifolia). Don’t forget the potential for aquaculture.
A New Frame of Mind
I have overlooked many other topics for the sake of brevity. My main purpose is to get you thinking. Increasing food production in New England will bring about major changes. Yards won’t be grass, and some of our beloved forests will undoubtedly have to disappear as we take on some of the environmental burdens that we currently externalize onto other areas. It is my hope that with a more regionally-suitable agricultural model we can mitigate some of the inevitable environmental impacts as we increase food production.
To see this become a reality, we need to abandon some of our preconceptions and traditional values. We readily accept change when it comes to other parts of our lives (how many of us still refuse to abandon the VHS, or are wary of trying the internet?), yet agriculture is something we are reluctant to see change. A new agriculture will bring new foods. Are we willing to eat persimmons and chestnuts instead of bananas and bagels? Only time will tell.
You are invited to join in a gathering of Amherst residents interested in making things a little bit better in our town today and into the future. All Things Community will provide us with an opportunity to share our favorite ideas with our neighbors and ask them to join us to work for a better tomorrow. Please plan on attending…
All Things Community
Celebrating Amherst in Transition
Saturday, October 13, 2012, 12:30 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Amherst Regional Middle School
170 Chestnut St., Amherst MA
Following a brief introduction, participants will be encouraged to develop their personal and collective vision of what it takes to create a resilient community. As the afternoon progresses, ideas will emerge and networks will form around specific action steps using an Open Space process depicted in the following video:
For a schedule, go to: All Things Community.
Please join us (and bring a friend)!
This community event is sponsored by Transition Amherst whose purpose is to…
“foster vibrant and resilient community—in the face of rising energy-prices, climate change, and economic instability—by empowering one another to share our skills and gifts, and create a better life for all.”
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.
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.