In time of grief, how can a town help? We Can Farm

The Recorder, November 1, 2015 by Richie Davis.

HEATH — In a town where roads may not always connect but people certainly do, the hopes of Jesse and Jeff took root on We Can Farm.

Jessica Van Steensburg still marvels at how much her partner, Robert J. “Jeff” Aho, knew and shared much of that understanding with people around him. But it was Van Steensburg — who’d grown up on a small farm in Londonderry, N.H. — who introduced her partner to farming. (She’s co-director of Just Roots Community Farm in Greenfield.)

Aho, a western Canada native who’d grown up in Spokane, Wash., came east to attend Williams College on a full scholarship to study political science, worked as a teacher, contractor and restaurant manager before teaching himself computers and working as an information technology coordinator. He loved baking bread, caring for his three children from a prior marriage and reading.

Together they found their dream farm, a 3-acre Royer Road property, after first approaching it from the wrong direction, beyond a long-discontinued section. In so doing, met their first neighbors, who told them they’d have to drive around, South Road, West Main Street and Dell Road. That was three years and four Heath Fairs ago, as Van Steensburg describes it.

On the farm, where they had to first do a major house overhaul, they began raising laying chickens, turkeys and pigs, as Van Steensburg had grown up doing. They soon joined the Heath Agricultural Society, helping to plan the annual August fair and also to set up annual root “cellars and caves” tours. They fell in love with their new town almost as much as with one another.
Aho also joined the town Agricultural Commission, followed recently there by Van Steensburg. She worked on The Heath Herald newspaper and the town Conservation Commission. Together this year they initiated a first-time series of Heath Farmers Markets, open free to any “Heathen” to sell their local products from their gardens and farms at a shared booth run cooperatively, taking turns running it on a small scale, as neighbors do.

“It was very successful,” said Van Steensburg, who sold eggs and leftover backyard vegetables there each Saturday. “People loved it.”

The one thing the couple didn’t do was get married, by choice.

Van Steensburg and Aho, who’d met at a Greenfield Business Association meeting eight years ago — he the Franklin-Hampshire Career Center’s IT coordinator, she director of operations at Northeast Sustainable Energy Association at the time — weren’t convinced from marriages they’d seen that the institution seemed all that sacred, even though “we were planning on spending the rest of our lives together and were going to have a ceremony down the road,” in Van Steensburg’s words.

They never imagined that their partnership would be cut short by an accident driving the 10-minute detour from their own road, which they’d driven so many times.

The couple had been just up the road, past the mile-long impassable stretch, at a Sept. 23 potluck celebration at Manse Farm, the home of friends Doug Mason and Nina Marshall, who’d recently finished work on their porch.

A little before 9:30, Aho left for home to turn out bread dough that he’d left rising into round, cast-iron pans for baking. He’d been gone only a few minutes when Van Steensburg heard the pager of Bob Burke, a close friend who’s also a volunteer firefighter. There’d been a serious accident on Dell Road, maybe 100 feet from its intersection with Royer Road, just down from Manse Farm. The driver needed to be extricated from his car after it crossed the road and struck a tree

Burke rushed there, as Aho had done minutes earlier, and as Van Steensburg followed, to find his 1998 Chevy Prism totaled.

“Living in Heath, on a road where there’s very little traffic, it couldn’t have happened better,” says Van Steensburg. “I knew half of the people there, which was comforting to me. I was in shock.”

Surprisingly, since these are the back roads of Heath at about 9:30 or 10 p.m, Brian DuPree happened to be driving by in his Stagecoach Auto tow truck minutes after Aho’s car ran off course and struck a tree, and was even able to summon police on his cell phone, which, Van Steensburg said, “you’re never able to do in Heath.”
“It’s the only reason he didn’t die in the accident,” she said.

Instead, with multiple skull fractures, contusions to the lungs and broken ribs and bruises to the lungs, Aho was rushed to the fairgrounds, where a LifeFlight helicopter transported him to Baystate Medical Center.

Van Steensburg, who was driven there by Marshall, spent the next 11 days by Aho’s side, as he remained in a coma in the intensive care unit. She turned his pillow, looked after him alongside the nurses and watched for his slight reactions when she sang songs to him and kept a journal.

They’d had a conversation in 2009, before preparing health-care proxy declarations, in which she remembers him cautioning, “You can only be my health-care proxy if you promise me that if I’m ever in a coma and I’m not going to wake up or regain any semblance of a normal life, you’ve got to be able to make this decision.”

After days of observing Aho’s slow progress but realizing that as “one of most highly functional, intelligent people I’d ever met in my entire life,” he was never going to come close to regaining full consciousness, Van Steensburg said, “That’s what I had to do.”

She remained with him about two more hours until he took his last breath, on Oct. 3. He was 45.


While Aho was still in his coma, with Van Steensburg noting each time he moved a toe or fluttered his eyes, friends and neighbors were already pitching in to do chores and move animals temporarily from We Can Farm.

David Fisher of Natural Roots Farm in Conway arrived to take the Berkshire-Hereford sows, Red and Virginia, and Berkshire cross boar, Frederick, in time for Virginia to give birth to 14 piglets. Birch Glen Stables took the horse Van Steensburg’s had for 20 years. Some of their chickens went to Colrain’s Katywil Community farm, others went to the Bourke Shire Farm.

“I ate my own eggs at the hospital,” Van Steensburg said. “That’s how well the community responded.”

One Heathen, Bob Viarengo, helped set up a Friends of Jeff Aho Fund, while Bourke did two benefit pressings at Bourke Shire Farm of special “Jeff Aho — A Heath Original — Cider,” some of it selling at the new farmers market, with about $15,000 raised to date to help Van Steensburg pay medical bills and help out the farm.

Another close friend in town, Jeff Peck, has offered to organize and raise money for a long-needed project, installing siding on the farm’s barn soon.

Van Steensburg’s sister also set up a GoFundMe crowd-sourcing account, which has raised nearly $3,500 to date from 53 people, some of whom she’s never met, to help WeCanFarm plan its future as Van Steensburg — given a two-month leave from her Greeenfield farm job — continues raising 40 laying chickens and pigs to sell to other farms.

“It was always our goal that one of us would wind up finding a living here on the property,” and that Aho would probably be more likely to work there part-time along with other work, with Van Steensburg working full-time at Just Roots. It will take some figuring to make WeCanFarm reach its potential for raising heritage-breed turkeys along with heritage pigs, expanded egg production and growing more vegetables for the Heath market. (The couple had raised turkeys for two years but stopped for a season after 15 of their 40 heritage birds were killed by coyotes.)

In the meantime, though, Van Steensburg feels like their community — including Just Roots and other farmers she’s worked with — has been giving back for all of the reaching out she and Aho have done together.

“The big piece, in the face of tragedy, is how your community reacts,” said Van Steensburg, who said she and Aho were first drawn to Heath while living in Shelburne Falls together because they’d heard about the community spirit in this town of 700.

When more than 300 people showed up for a memorial service in the Heath Community Center — a day after the town’s first“green burial in Center Cemetery, with Van Steensburg and friends pitching in to dig the grave — fellow Heathen Arthur Schwenger said it was the largest crowd he’d ever witnessed there, including town meetings, in his 43 years in town.

“Jeff and I have given so much to this community, and they’re giving back,” Van Steensburg said. “That’s the beauty of Heath. I feel very held by my community. It’s just like a fairy tale.”

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You can reach Richie Davis at or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

Editor’s note: This story has been edited from an earlier edition.