Tough road to reap

Farm school teaches students to grow in many ways

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By Devra First
Globe Staff / August 24, 2011

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ATHOL - The sheep aren’t happy. They are trapped in a pen with a trio of women intent on catching them, tilting back their heads, and squirting large syringes of garlic oil down their throats. Emily DeFeo gets hold of an animal and straddles its back. It takes her for a ride, but she gets it to swallow the medicine; the garlic oil acts as a natural deworming agent. Lee Smith cracks opens a gate to let the treated animal out of the pen. One down. In a corner, Rebekah Meyer administers garlic oil to another as she talks to it, to calm the sheep and perhaps herself as well. “I fed you milk, remember that?’’ she murmurs. “It’s sort of like that.’’ Instructor Josh Pincus looks on, offering pointers.

DeFeo, Smith, and Meyer are participants in the Learn to Farm program, a yearlong course that trains adults in sustainable agriculture. The $12,500 tuition includes instruction and room and board. It’s run by the Farm School, which also operates educational programs for children, summer vegetable and winter meat CSAs, and a middle school. The three started the program last October, along with 10 other students. Their class of 13 was the biggest the Learn to Farm program had seen in its then eight-year history, up from four students the year before - reflective of a general increase in interest in sustainable agriculture and learn-to-farm programs. Last summer, at operations such as Red Fire Farm in Granby and Blue Heron Organic Farm in Lincoln, coordinators reported a significant rise in inquiries.

This summer, the trend continues. For instance, at Sterling College, a Vermont institution focused on environmental studies, sustainable agriculture has become the most popular major. “It’s up from about 25 to 30 percent of students to closer to 50 and rising,’’ says director of advancement Tim Patterson. “We’re able to offer this program because of a resurgence of sustainable agriculture in this region. It’s not something happening in isolation. It’s a whole movement.’’

Things are no different at the Learn to Farm Program. “We’re already full for next year and accepting a lot of applications for 2012,’’ says Farm School director Patrick Connors. “We have more applications than ever right now.’’

I visited the farm last fall to see what the experience was like. Now the year is winding down. Do programs like this one really help create the next generation of farmers, or do they ultimately function more as a gap year with goats? I return to find out.

When I arrive, most of the group is out weeding the fields. One of the first people I see is Meyer, who took a year off from Harvard to be here. She was going to become a doctor, but shortly after starting the Learn to Farm program realized she was interested in veterinary medicine. She hasn’t changed her mind. “Lambing was amazing,’’ she says. She has been shadowing a local vet, helping make rounds to area farms. She’ll be back at school as a senior soon and is busy with applications for veterinary school. Large animals are her main area of interest. “I like to work with animals with a purpose,’’ she says.

It’s not unusual for students to continue working at the Farm School or with fellow alums; Connors went through an early version of the Learn to Farm program himself. DeFeo will stay on for a while as a kitchen intern. One of the highlights of her year was an independent project milking cows, she says - even though it meant getting up early every single day. Fellow student farmers Eleanor Kane and Theodore Wiegand have leased land in the Framingham area on which to start their own operation; Kane is also working as a teacher. DeFeo hopes to connect with someone they know who runs a raw-milk dairy. She’d love to keep milking.

Although the main interest of program participants is farming, Connors says education is a strong second. Smith is now employed at a program for adolescents on a Montessori farm school in Ohio. Among other duties, she’s working with students on the farm and teaching an orcharding class.

Justin Green is heading to southern Washington, near Portland, Ore. He has rented land to grow vegetables. Building on Portland’s vibrant food truck scene, he plans to start a mobile farmers’ market. Caitlin Greene is bound for Nova Scotia in the fall with her father to see about setting up operations on family land. They’ll need to build a house, put up a barn. “There’s nothing there now,’’ she says.

The student farmers all say the experience has been wonderful - “a dream come true,’’ comments one after another. There were challenging moments, of course: planting tomatoes in the mud, handling potentially dangerous equipment. And, all agree, living with a large group. They often joke that the Learn to Farm program would make an excellent reality show.

Not everyone completed the program. Husband and wife Kiyoshi Mino and Emma Lincoln left early, having leased land for their own operation in Illinois.

Former head grower Nate Frigard has moved on, as well. He’s started his own farm in Western Massachusetts, bringing along several graduates of the Learn to Farm program.

No one is attending law school or joining the corporate sector. The year hasn’t been a diversion; it’s a step on a path. With the economy strained and jobs hard to come by, it’s easy to see how self-sufficiency, creating something to feed yourself and your community, could look more appealing than ever.

The group goes about its day. Student farmer Sophia Maravell has prepared lunch, vegetable curry with coconut milk, as well as raita, quinoa, and salad. “Everything in the curry is produced on the farm,’’ she says. “Well, except the coconut milk.’’

Instructor Josh Buell, wearing a shirt that says “Yes we can,’’ works with some of the group to pickle green beans and seal them in glass jars. The kitchen fills with the pungent smells of vinegar and dill.

Several students head out with livestock manager Olivier Flagollet to spread manure. The tractor is almost out of diesel, and it’s iffy whether it will make it to the field and back. If it dies, getting it started again will be involved, Green says. Still, no one seems too worked up about it. There’s simply no diesel on hand. The machine will get there, or it won’t, and then they’ll deal with it. It’s a good attitude to cultivate if you want to farm, a lifestyle that’s anything but predictable.

Back with the sheep, Pincus has found one badly affected by worms. He pulls down its lower eyelid to show the students. Its pallor indicates anemia caused by a serious infestation. This sheep will get stronger medicine than garlic. The farmers prefer to keep things natural, but not at the risk of losing livestock. As Meyer, Smith, and DeFeo continue to treat the sheep, they become more comfortable with the process. In a short while, the pen is empty, the field filled with woolly beasts gently burping garlic.

Regardless of the task, the students work together closely and comfortably, helping one another when help is needed. They talk about the future: plans for their own farms, what equipment and methods they might use. This program teaches students the fundamentals of farming. That’s a start. It sends them off with a network of mentors and peers, with a community to help carry them forward. Now the real learning begins.

Devra First can be reached at

Scenes from the Farm School

Scenes from the Farm School

Check out apprentices at work in Athol.