Lessons from the food revolution

IMG_20150814_140908105I toured the 40-acre UMass Agricultural Learning Center as part of the Northeast Organic Farming Association’s conference. The Center has been here in Amherst since 2011, but this was my first visit. Here is what I learned:

Lesson # 1. UMass offers lots of opportunities for agricultural learning.  The Agricultural Learning Center was envisioned as an outdoor laboratory for students in agriculture, turfgrass and landscape management.  The Stockbridge School for Agriculture had offered a two-year program but in 2013 began offering a bachelor’s degree as well.  The Sustainable Food and Farming department, now part of the Stockbridge School, has exploded from five student majors in 2003 to 147  in 2015.

Lesson #2. Farming is hard work but is rewarding. Fifteen students  run the Student Farm  from January through December. With mentoring from Stockbridge School lecturer Amanda Brown, they make a plan for the 15-acre organic farm, half of which is located at the Learning Center and half in South Deerfield. They  work the farm and sell the produce to CSA members, Big Y, and the UMass dining services. They dedicate a lot of time to the farm,  faithfully arriving at the farm at 6:45 a.m. on Fridays in the fall.  Kind of early, but the dawn and early morning are breathtakingly beautiful.

IMG_20150814_144723393Lesson #3. Those with initiative, drive and a clear goal can accomplish much. Students submit proposals, and if they have a good idea, can enlist a faculty sponsor, and get funding, they are assigned a plot of land. There’s an “art farm” where a student raised flax to turn into oil for paints, and plants like indigo and hibiscus for making paper and other art supplies. There’s a “fruit forest” plot where students applied six cubic yards of biochar before planting herbs, fruiting bushes, fertility bushes, trees and cover crops (shown in photo) to test soil enrichment methods.

Lesson # 4. You can learn a lot from mistakes. At the student farm and the other student-run projects, a certain amount of failure is acceptable and even encouraged.  Students try new things, take risks, and have challenging real-world experiences with the safety net of the University support and mentoring beneath them. For example, the student farmers planted five rows of tomatoes, but it turned out they could only afford stakes for one row.  Oops.

IMG_20150814_150601477Lesson #5. There are ways to attract beneficial insects including pollinators. In addition to planting wildflowers in a Pollinator Habitat plot, we saw a 400-foot hedgerow that students have just planted with 20 species of plants, both perennials and woody shrubs that will attract beneficial insects. By choosing plants that provide season-long bloom, with at least three plants blooming at any time, this hedgerow will  support pollinators and natural enemies of many plant pests.  I recognized asters, serviceberries, elderberry and meadow sweet.

Lesson #6. Community connections are central to working in the food system. Jason, the student manager of the Food for All project, talks weekly with coordinators at the Amherst Survival Center and Not Bread Alone, both of which provide meals and food for people in need.  This helps him to plan what crops to plant based on what these non-profit agencies need.  Students then make deliveries of food on schedules that works for the agencies and look for other ways students can help.  This food justice project also invites community members to join them. Stockbridge Instructor Sarah Berquist (shown in photo at top) oversees this project.

IMG_20150814_151251179_HDRLesson # 7. Working effectively together as a team is critical to successful farming.  The 15 students who work the Student Farm learn a lot about group dynamics and communication.  They are running a big, complex system, and each takes on a different responsibility, such as managing, distribution and record-keeping. Amanda Brown described the team as a “15-headed farmer.”

IMG_20150814_151007277Lesson # 8. Some people like kale more than others. Me, I love kale, and so do the UMass students who eat at the Earth Foods Cafe, which buys 600 pounds of kale a week from the Student Farm (shown growing in photo).  They serve 500 meals a day and include kale at every serving.  On the other hand,  when the Food for All garden manager asks the coordinators of free meal sites what produce they want, the answer is, “Please, we don’t need as much kale!”

Thanks to this NOFA tour, I did a good deal of agricultural learning myself.  With these young people in the lead, we are well on our way toward the regenerative  food system we need.

This is the second in a series of reports arising out of the Northeast Organic Farming Association conference. To access past blog posts, click on this index of more than 120 past posts on simple living, radical frugality, gardening, living without and climate change.


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