Agricultural Training Program Offers a Chance to Grow Skills

The Recorder, July 14th, 2016, by Richie Davis. That next farmer you meet might actually be a WWOOFer.

Or maybe an agricultural apprentice or a farming intern.

In any case, while they’re helping area farmers help you get a taste of Franklin County agriculture, these young helpers are getting their first taste of hands-on agricultural training.

“It’s pretty cool,” says Patrice Groomes, a recent Brown University graduate from the Chicago area, who along with a friend from Brown, are WWOOFers — part of the World Wide Opportunities On Organic Farms — at the Ashfield flower and vegetable farm and catering business, Gloriosa Inc. this summer.

The 22-year-old student of molecular biology, who’s going on to a doctoral program at Harvard in chemical biology, was looking for something to do this summer that was “non-academic. … During the time I spent at Brown, everyone kind of has their own little fantasy of things they can do in the quote-unquote real world. One of my fantasies was working with nature. It’s more physically demanding, not sitting there with a book studying and thinking very, very hard, so it’s refreshing.”

The WWOOFing work involves more than tending the vegetables, herbs and extensive flower gardens at Gloria Pacosa’s Curtis House catering and event-planning business.

As workers restore an 1820 barn for use as a catering hall, Groomes and her fellow WWOOFers, Chandler Carter and Elizabeth Fenner are involved in a variety of chores, from scraping paint off a 1915 greenhouse frame to be assembled on site to helping with the cut-flower business and catering.

“I’ve been working on cleaning out the top floor of the barn, and Chandler and I have been working on greenhouse construction. (The frame pieces) are maybe 70 pounds apiece. We had to physically lift them and scrape off the paint, using masks and gloves. We had to take nails out using hammers and tools. It just felt really productive. I feel like variety’s been a large part my experience here. And we cook together at night. We’re very flexible.”

Carter, a 23-year-old Brown graduate in media studies and psychology, also points out a large circular floral garden that she and Groomes got to design.

“I’ve always thought of doing WWOOFing as kind of transition, at the end of high school … during college. I’ve always been interested in just picking up and going somewhere, learning farming or gardening skills, construction skills, kind of hands-on work. … I was happy to have a large flower garden to work on and an opportunity for floral design.”

Neither has had gardening experience in the past, and neither is sure how they will apply their new skills in the future.

Fenner, who left her speech therapist’s job in New York City after eight years, got a taste of farming on a New Jersey farm for a month and took a couple of flower-growing classes in New York before arriving in Ashfield, says her desire to give her students more room for creativity and self-expression led to the decision to do the same herself, “to see what kind of skills I can develop after all these years, just to do things I’ve never done — and take off possibly in a different direction.”

In addition to tending the vegetables and herbs, which are used for catering weddings and parties, the dahlias, delphiniums and 80 or so other flower varieties used for funerals, weddings, and for sale at Northampton’s River Valley Market and Daisy Stone Studio in Shelburne, Fenner and the other WWOOFers have planted tomatoes, peas and other vegetables at a nearby greenhouse for Gloriosa.

Beyond the gardens, though, the three women are discovering the charms of small-town life.

“The community adds so much to the learning process,” says Fenner, who’s 37.

She enumerates the ways neighbors, other Ashfield folks, and “everybody adds guidance and knowledge and support to whatever you’re doing. … It’s been just such a gift to have so much room to breathe. I appreciate that Gloria will show you how to do something and give you room to explore and a chance to gain more skills and take over more responsibility. … People have really welcomed us as part of their extended network. I feel that something I’ll definitely take back with me is seeing how everybody here supports each other’s endeavors and how that really adds to the success in things that might be difficult. It’s people consulting as a natural part of relationships.”

Groomes points to how excited she was that the librarians in town gave them cards and even know their names when they visit regularly.

“Ooh, and you can see all of the stars!” adds Carter when asked what are the best parts of her experience and how she’ll use what she’s learned here.

“The interesting thing for me is this experience in relation to what I want to do in graduate school, in media and psychology, exploring the effects of media on young people. So being in a place where there’s no cell service and limited Wi-Fi, you just kind of have an appreciation for what it means to be in a community and actually connecting with people rather than with technology. Maybe that could even bring up some research topics and guide me.”

Teamster training

While these three WWOOFers, who pay a nominal fee to the international organization to link them with a farm where they work in exchange for room and board, are part of a formal network, a British farm worker, Calixta Killander, is learning to drive horses as part an apprentice program in neighboring Conway.

“This is something I’ve always dreamed of because it combines my two passions, for gardening and horses,” says the 26-year-old Cambridgeshire woman, who’s been at Natural Roots Farm since March.

Although Killander grew up on a small family farm that grew grain, she says, “I didn’t have any interest, really, in farming at all,” until she traveled to India.

“I saw a lot of subsistence farmers in rural areas, and how large the population is, and issues with pollution and waste management, and it really made me home in on having direction, with the goal to farm in a more sustainable way and provide nourishing food for people.”

After returning briefly to England to volunteer working on farms, she studied sustainable agriculture and forestry at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, where she managed a small market garden before going on to work briefly on a Hawaiian coffee and macadamia plantation.

But Killander, who had also done work rehabilitating horses that had aggression and other handling issues, “using more gentle horsemanship techniques, like body language, to acquire different results,” heard from a friend about Natural Roots, the 7-acre horse-powered vegetable farm where David Fisher and Anna Maclay use not only uses draft horses in all aspects of the operation, but also host apprentices to learn to be teamsters.

Together with Kyle Farr, a New Hampshire apprentice, she participates in all other aspects of the 200-share CSA farm, and says there’s plenty to learn.

“It’s been really fascinating to learn these agricultural techniques, because historically, that’s how we’ve always farmed,” says Killander. “These skills and techniques are dying out, because there are very few teamsters out there. I’ve learned the importance of continuing this knowledge for future generations.”

What’s surprised her, Killander says, is how many other techniques she’s learned, even though she’s had other experience on organic farms: Fisher’s use of cover-cropping techniques, crop rotation and weed control.

“The fields here are pretty much weed-free, compared to anywhere else I’ve been or seen,” says Killander, who plans to stay until December to learn forestry work with the horses. “There’s a real focus on using all sorts of different tools and techniques and cultivation schedules, and I’m really seeing the difference as the crops grow, as opposed to big fields of pumpkins where the weeds are taller than you and it’s just a complete nightmare.”