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Magna cum carrot

At the Farm School, students get down-to-earth and dirty while learning lessons on the land

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By Devra First
Globe Staff / November 3, 2010

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I don’t drive stick. But that’s not going to stop me from driving this tractor. Through an obstacle course, no less. It’s a sparkling October afternoon, and I am seated high on a green John Deere, attempting to steer it through the narrow space between two poles.

“Now reverse,’’ instructs Nate Frigard, head grower at the Farm School here. He has a head of floppy, boyish blond curls, but there’s a steely look in his eye. I’m having flashbacks to my driver’s license test. I don’t have to parallel park this thing, do I?

Frigard talks me through the course. I raise the bucket, scoop a load of dirt, and dump it. I drive as close as I can to a pole without touching it. Just a little closer. Oops. Good thing it’s only a pole. Frigard marks the infraction on his clipboard.

In my daily life, I’m not often called upon to operate large pieces of farm equipment. But driving a tractor is one of many skills the students taking part in the school’s Learn to Farm program must master. The Farm School operates educational programs for children, summer vegetable and winter meat CSAs, a middle school for local children, and this yearlong program to train adults in sustainable agriculture. Founded eight years ago, it begins in October and runs into the following September. Participants live at Maggie’s Farm, part of the Farm School campus, where they learn how to grow organic crops, care for livestock, build barns, keep bees, create agricultural business plans, and more. They live, cook, and eat together, sleeping in dorm-like bunks and making the most of the food produced on the farm.

There are 13 participants this year, up from four last year. This reflects a steadily growing interest in farming internships and programs. At Massachusetts operations from Appleton Farms in Ipswich to Red Fire Farm in Granby to Blue Heron Organic Farm in Lincoln, coordinators report significant increases in inquiries this past summer. On a national level, next year sees the launch of FoodCorps, an AmeriCorps program devoted to farm-to-school initiatives and the creation of school gardens. It will start with 50 service members, but the cofounders received proposals for more than 500.

“It’s been dramatic how many more applicants we had this year compared to last,’’ says Farm School director Patrick Connors of the Learn to Farm Program. “Last year we probably had 20 serious applicants. This year we had at least 40, but many more letters of interest. There is a lot more buzz out there about working in food and farming.’’

To find out what it’s like to participate in such a program, I join up for a few days.

When I arrive at the post-and-beam farmhouse where I’ll be staying with the group, some of the students are out front working in the garden. This is where they grow food for their own consumption; the field crops largely supply the CSA. I’m immediately conscripted to help Rebekah Meyer carry bucketloads of yanked vegetation over to the compost pile. She is taller than I, and stronger, a Harvard student from Belmont with dark hair, a thick sweater, and a sweet smile. She’s interested in becoming a vet, she says, but she’s open to possibility. She’s taking a year off from school, “for the chance to be outside for a year and learn these very practical skills,’’ she says.

Many students echo this desire to be outside. I’m also grateful to be moving about and breathing fresh air.

Some of the students say they want to become farmers. Others hope to bring the skills they acquire to teaching. Some are couples, learning together. One is a Cambridge rabbi on sabbatical, participating with her daughter. What do they have in common?

“Small farming, local farming, sustainable farming, organic farming has become much more culturally significant,’’ says Ben Holmes, who founded the Farm School more than 20 years ago. “Which means that, one, for the students of this program, there is a market. . . . But, two, it’s out there in the culture as something that’s significant, as something that has meaning. And I would say the vast majority of the students who come to us are looking for meaning more than anything — meaning in their lives.’’

Right now, though, they are simply looking for lunch. Sophia Maravell and Eleanor Kane are on duty today, preparing food for everyone. Sophia’s Greek heritage inspires the meal, delicious stuffed cabbage in vegetarian and meat versions. Cooking for a large group is always a challenge. A dry erase board by the communal table reads “Expensive Foods,’’ and lists things like stock and cheese.

Mindfulness about the cost of things and an aversion to waste underlie life here, as they must at every farm. Perhaps teaching children about farming and gardening isn’t just part of the solution to the obesity epidemic, as people like those starting Food Corps assert. Perhaps it can also help shift our cultural mindset about saving and spending.

After lunch, it’s off to learn about fencing with livestock manager Olivier Flagollet, who leavens his teaching with friendly teasing. If good fences make good neighbors, they are crucial to farms. The kind of fences one never gives a thought to walking past — poles connected with twine, they look like nothing — someone puts them there, and then moves them, and then moves them again. Fences are a lot of work. We practice creating paddocks efficiently, measuring our paces, noting where poles should line up with our armpits so we don’t have to measure each time we plant one. The fences are electrified once they’re in place.

“It’s not much to contain 20,000 pounds of live meat,’’ Flagollet says, looking at the enclosure we’ve created. “That and the right charge. It has to be impeccable so you can sleep every night.’’

Then, noting an errant tire track, he instructs mildly: “Don’t drive on the pasture, or the animals won’t eat the grass. It’s a commodity.’’ Lessons everywhere, even underfoot.

I join some students to feed the pigs. At their troughs, the animals devour the vegetable scraps we’ve brought. They jostle and squeal, the pale pink of ballet slippers. Man, these pigs are pigs. They inhale everything. Here, swine, have some more. We’ll gladly trade you vegetables today for bacon tomorrow.

After a late-afternoon snack of leftover potato-leek soup, the students scatter. We’re on our own for dinner, and plans have been made for an evening excursion involving ice cream and voter registration. By the time I’m usually starting my second course in a city restaurant, the house is silent. Aside from the eerie cries of nearby coyotes in the night, it remains that way until it’s time for chores the next morning.

Boots: Another thing, like fences, that are more important than you give them credit for. Mine are lace-up hiking boots, annoying to take off and on each time I enter and leave the house. I’m coveting the rubber Wellies the students sport along with their Carhartt pants. There’s not much vanity, but people do admire a warm and waterproof garment.

I lace ’em up for the first of 47 times this day and head out to meet Pride, the dairy cow. She is a patient girl, standing still as a team of novices takes turns milking her. Some get a rhythm going, and the milk hits the side of the metal pail with real force. Others are slower and less forceful. When it’s my turn, I lean into Pride’s warm side and take a teat in each hand, tugging downward. Thin streams of white plink against the pail. Learning to milk has some of the intimacy and awkwardness of early sexual encounters. The sweetness, too. You’re in some kind of congress with another living being, just the two of you.

We spend the rest of the morning playing with wood. Farmers need to be able to build stuff and fix stuff. Using hand tools, we work on measuring and cutting boards to make sawhorses. Then instructor Josh Buell has us maneuver felled trees onto a noisy red sawmill, running the blade down the length of the trunks, flipping and cutting until we have a usable beam. The blade makes me shudder.

In the afternoon, mechanical methods are again juxtaposed with older, quieter technology. In the field beside the tractor course, Olivier has harnessed two horses to a harrow, a spiked metal net the animals drag across the soil. Cows won’t graze near their own dung, the so-called “zone of repugnance’’ (a term we’re all quite taken with). Breaking up and spreading the cow pucky solves the problem.

Sophia has a successful run on the tractor. Then Emma Lincoln’s up. She’s more petite than your average tractor driver. “This was definitely designed by a man!’’ she exclaims, stretching to hold down the clutch. As she steers between poles, wild turkeys break out of the trees, flying gray-black against the autumn leaves. On the green field, Olivier and Rebekah go by, pulled by horses wet with sweat. They are laughing at something. Working on a farm is constant effort, but the days are punctuated with lovely tableaux. Never mind that Olivier and Rebekah are spreading poop. My zone of repugnance is nonexistent at the moment.

In the short time I’m here, we also harvest and rinse vegetables, pack boxes for the CSA, feed and water the animals, set up new paddocks and herd them in, and still find a few moments to stand beside a late-bearing raspberry bush, tasting the sweet-tart fruit. It seems like a full life — maybe too full.

“I’m trying to imagine what it would be like sitting here and knowing this is where I’m going to be for the next year,’’ I say to Rebekah.

She smiles. “It’s a dream,’’ she says.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.