Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Meet the Farm Crew Part 2: Maggie (Margaret Ranen)

Margaret Ranen is our home-grown apprentice. She attended Wildwood Elementary School and first visited Simple Gifts Farm as a high school senior. Ben Wells-Tolley (many of you probably remember him!) showed her around. Margaret and many of her Amherst friends have worked at farms, as the farm economy depends on gigajoules of young people’s energy. Her parents have patronized our stand at the Amherst Farmers’ Market for years, and when she staffs the CSA and market, she knows many of you.

She worked on the weeding crew at Brookfield Farm near her home through high school, and weeding – especially herbs and carrots – is still her favorite job. As an apprentice at Simple Gifts Farm, Margaret deeply appreciates the opportunity to learn every single day. For example, she notes, every apprentice has a particular crop to scout every Wednesday, when UMass Extension specialist Lisa McKeag visits to survey the farm for crop pests and disease (Margaret’s crop is potatoes, host to many interesting and annoying pests). She had also never driven a tractor before this year, and now knows that she loves tractor work. She operates the John Deere 5055, with which she uses the finger weeder (see here for more on this awesome implement) and the plastic layer. Experiencing the full farm system also has its surprises; she hadn’t considering how much time goes into processing the produce post-harvest – indeed, much time is spent at the wash station.

As we wade through bright stems of chard, I ask Margaret for her perspective on the growing up in Amherst.  She said that she really appreciated the abundance of the local agricultural scene.  She also has been disappointed in the lack of connections between the colleges and the local community.  She felt that from both sides.  As a youngster, there were many resources from the colleges that were inaccessible to her;  as a student at Hampshire, she felt that her and other students’ experiences suffered from the isolation from the local community.  She has been excited to see the real connections between Simple Gifts Farm and UMass students as we host classes and have a number of students who have shares at the farm.

Margaret is quick to catch on to all the new skills needed to navigate a farm season, and brings a good sense of humor along, too. In her spare time, she loves to sing and play guitar, on her own or with her family (her dad is local celebrity David Ranen, chorus director at ARMS). As for cooking up the farm’s bounty, beets are her favorite: “I love them so much.  Our beets are beautiful.” She loves them steamed, fried, shred in salads, baked . . . all the ways are good.

As I’m about to head in from the field to begin my own work day, Margaret has one more thing to say. “Something I really, really appreciate at this farm is that. . .  when you are in your 20s, you are always worrying about what is next. This job forces you to be in the moment.” Whatever does come next, we know Margaret will bring her quick wits and kindness to the task.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Meet the Farm Crew Part I. Keith Neijstrom

It’s 7:30 a.m., and the farm crew is in full swing, picking peppers. Keith Neijstrom carefully plucks ripe peppers and places them in his bucket. It’s a far cry from his life a year ago, working as an Industrial Hygenist at a corporate environmental consulting firm in Syracuse, NY. It was a good job, but after seven years, he was ready to take a chance and try a new career. An apprenticeship was the natural way to give farming a try and to gain the knowledge needed to decide whether it is the next step for him.

Of all our apprentices, Keith stands out for how deeply he engages with the education offered. The day-to-day practice of farming is a rich learning experience; Keith takes this farther by documenting farming techniques and projects with photos and notes. He also reads agricultural books and bulletins in his spare time, and is a dedicated participant in the CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training) program; Simple Gifts is one of 17 farms that offer apprenticeships and take turns hosting farm tours and educational programs each season. He has experienced several apprenticeships – mainly while in college at the Rochester Institute of Technology – and he feels that the experience at Simple Gifts Farm has more general applications than others.

Overall, learning vegetable growing techniques is the most valuable thing he’s learned, says Keith. He also appreciates getting experience working with tractors and tractor-driven implements (his assigned tractor is the Farmall 140 that we use with the basket cultivator), and projects like building the new greenhouse. He enjoys the animals, too, particularly how excited they are when you come to feed them in the morning. Although the pigs are really selfish, “I don’t blame them for that,” he says.

By now, we’re in the caterpillar tunnel, harvesting tomatoes. The alkaloid smell of tomato plants fills the long archway filled with foliage and ripening fruits as the discussion turns to the farm community. I’ve noticed that farm-kid Rachel has developed a friendship with Keith. “I think she’s cool,” he agrees. He also particularly likes how the barn cats greet him early every day at morning meeting, and again when he returns home at the end of the day.

In his spare time, Keith enjoys tinkering – he is learning bicycle repair, and his creation “Picnic Table Man” greets the crew in the farmhouse yard. He also enjoys NFL football and movies. For cooking, he prefers hardy favorites like carrots and potatoes.

After this apprenticeship, Keith is torn between returning to environmental consulting and continuing the farming dream. Land in central New York is affordable, and with careful management, he thinks he could get started. Organic practices that prioritize soil health, and zero waste principals, would be guiding sustainability principles of his operation. Whatever his next steps are, we know they will be carefully considered. In the meantime, we are glad to have his steady presence at Simple Gifts Farm.