Editorial: UMass students get dirt under their fingernails as they learn

  • UMass Amherst Student Farm Manager Amanda Brown, right, and student Keith Zorn, talk to Kevin Barry, director of produce and floral at Big Y Foods. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

At the University of Massachusetts student-run vegetable farm in South Deerfield, students learn the truly important lessons by getting dirty.

This year, the farm’s 21 acres at 89 River Road will yield nearly 100,000 pounds of produce. Thirty-six vegetable varieties are grown, including corn, pumpkins, gourds, peppers and squash. From planning to harvest, marketing to wholesale distribution, the entire operation is run by a dozen or so students.

“It’s cool to have power. A lot of schools have student farms, but not a lot of farms let students make decisions,” Senior Liam Dillon told the Recorder recently.

The Student Farming Enterprise program run by Stockbridge School of Agriculture began in the fall of 2007 with two students growing a quarter-acre of kale and broccoli through an independent study.

Today, the farm is a real-world experience that combines classroom education with hands-on learning, where students get dirt under their fingernails. In the fall, students come up with a crop plan, estimate how much yield they’ll get, then put it into action over the next year. The farm, while an educational program, is self-sufficient.

The revenue students generate goes directly back into the program for next year and students have to overcome the real world pressures of organizing long hours of labor to balance the books.

Along with serving 115 people through its Community Supported Agriculture business, the farm sells at markets and stands, supplies UMass dining facilities, and delivers weekly to Big Y supermarkets in Northampton, Greenfield and Amherst.

“I can attest the skills you learn in this program stay with you. I still use the same spreadsheets and dig out old notebooks,” said Farm Manager Jason Silverman, a graduate of the program. Silverman also manages his own farming business in Conway.

“It’s been really refreshing to take a course so hands-on — because liberal arts colleges tend to be really theoretical,” said Mount Holyoke College student Julia Opel, working on the farm this year through the Five College Consortium. “It’s grounded everything I’ve learned.”

We’d like to think this program will attract younger area students who hail from farming families, students like grade schoolers who have been learning about farm and field through the Hawlemont Regional School HAY program.

In its first year, the Hawley, Agriculture and You program saw a 10 percent increase in student participation. Last fall, enrollment grew by 30 more students as the engaging farm-flavored approach to education attracted more families. This coming school year, when the children from the closed Heath Elementary School move to the district, Hawlemont is expected to house about 160 students — doubling its enrollment in five years, at a time other elementary schools are shrinking.

Mohawk Trail Regional High School has been considering ways that the secondary school might continue this education, which along with regional vocational schools would make a nice bridge to the Stockbridge program.

For our youth who want to continue the area’s farming tradition, Stockbridge’s blend of valuable book-learning, field work and business realities is an impressive demonstration of successful, practical education for an occupation as old as the earth but in a modern world.