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Between the Rows

Between the Rows: Jessica Van Steensberg

Last month when I went to visit Shelly Beck at the Greenfield Community Farm, I learned that a new Heath neighbor of mine, Jessica Van Steensberg, is the associate director. I immediately had to meet her.

I found her at the house on a three-acre plot she bought with her husband, Jeff Aho, and moved into two years ago. Behind the house I saw hens free ranging everywhere, a big hog in a pen and a whole flock of black turkeys that were clearly waiting for Thanksgiving. This is the We Can Farm and it is filled with activity.

Van Steensberg is not new to small-scale farming. She and her siblings grew up on a small farm in Londonderry, N.H. “I loved the farm. We raised our own food, veggies, chickens, pigs and sheep. We’d barter the meat.”

When the time came, she attended Cazenovia College. “I have been a horse lover all my life, so I chose to go to Cazenovia, a small school, because they had an equine business degree. I figured even if I never got to do the horses part, I’d still have a business degree.”

Her part-time college job and then full-time position with Blue Seal Feeds took her to farms, but not yet to her own.

“When I became a territory sales manager for Blue Seal, I needed to move into my territory, which included Connecticut as well as parts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Because my two sisters went to Smith, I was familiar with Northampton so I moved there. Six months later, I moved to Greenfield, where I later began working for the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association as their director of operations.

“I worked at NESEA for six years. That was my first nonprofit job. I was so happy to be able to walk to work. It was the first town where I really felt at home and got to know what it’s like to be part of a community.”

Her love of horses took her to volunteer work on the board of directors at Opening Gaits Therapeutic Riding Center in Gill. It was through Opening Gaits that she met her husband in 2008. “Jeff has three children, Kieran, now 13, Hjordis, now 11, and Tove, now 9. They spend half their time with us and half with their mother in Greenfield.”

While working for NESEA, Van Steensberg met many people who said she should meet Jay Lord, who is well known in the area as a founder of the Greenfield Center School and of the Northeast Foundation for Children, and more recently, as one of the founders of the Greenfield Community Farm, Just Roots. “I finally met Jay and began my transition from energy efficiency to farming. We thought we’d work well together because we have complementary skill sets. He is visionary and I’m boots on the ground. Being associate director of Just Roots is a part-time job; I also work as office manager for the architect Margo Jones.”

The desire for their own farm was fulfilled when they moved to Heath. Before they even moved into their house, they planted their first garden and joined the Heath Agricultural Society, which organizes the Heath Fair every year. They have now met half the town and have established their own farm operation with particular focus on raising and selling heritage breeds of animals.

I got to meet the pigs, including Rocky the Hereford boar. “We like supporting heritage and endangered breeds. We are the only place selling purebred Hereford hogs on the Eastern seaboard.” Hereford hogs are ideal for small-scale farming because they do not grow too large, are quiet and docile and the sows are good mothers. The plan is to sell breeding stock and feeder pigs in the spring.

They raise chickens and, at this point, they sell eggs “casually.” They are also raising 35 black turkeys, a rare heritage breed. “They are also referred to as Spanish blacks or Nordic blacks, but since the lines have been crossed, we just refer to them as black,” Van Steensberg said. “They are suspected to be one of the first breeds developed from wild turkeys and also suspected to be the first breed brought over to Europe.” In fact, these turkey were brought from Mexico in the 1500s, and later returned here with the early colonists.

All of them, except one named Sally, are sold and will make their way to Thanksgiving tables in the area. Van Steensberg expects they will raise a larger number next year.

While I have been very aware of the necessity to maintain seed collections to preserve a wide and varied gene pool, I hadn’t given much thought to the necessity for keeping a varied gene pool for farm animals. Through Van Steensberg, I was introduced to the Livestock Conservancy, www.livestockconservancy.org. Its mission is “ensuring the future of agriculture through the genetic conservation and promotion of endangered breeds of livestock and poultry.” It finds endangered livestock breeds and works with breeders to increase those populations. Breeding these animals can offer a financial opportunity while supporting valuable conservation work. None of us know what genes will be important in meeting the challenges of the future.

I was too late this year, but next year I plan to put a turkey on the table just like the ones early settlers would have put on their tables at this season of the year.

In the meantime, I wish you all a happy Thanksgiving with wishes that you enjoy a delicious meal of your family favorites.

Readers can leave comments at Pat Leuchtman’s Web site: www.commonweeder.com. Leuchtman has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980.

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