Sunday, July 27, 2014

Meet the Crew, Part II. Jerahmy Parsons

By Audrey Barker Plotkin, who commutes to work – but lives on the farm

Jerahmy coming in from tending the chickens
“Living here, you become part of the farm. Everything that goes wrong, and everything that goes right, is part of you.”  This is how Jerahmy Parsons describes the apprenticeship experience at Simple Gifts Farm.

Gosh, I thought to myself, that sounds rather overwhelming. So I asked what he thought of such a full immersion.

“It’s the only way to do it,” he answered. “You can’t commute to farm life.”

Jerahmy Parsons is absorbed in farming, one piece of reaching his ambition to become a wine maker. Understanding crop production and how to work with the soil to produce a crop – potatoes, squash, or wine grapes – is critical to growing quality vegetables and wine alike. Wine, of course, gets plenty of attention for its ‘terroir,’ but think about New England strawberries in June, or the earthy sweetness of new potatoes in your share.

Arriving in Amherst in 2005 for college, Jerahmy earned a degree in chemistry from University of Massachusetts. He enjoyed studying chemistry, although his original thought to prepare for medical school was turned on its head when he studied abroad in Paris, and became enamored of wine culture. On return, he began taking food chemistry and soils courses, and got a job at Spirit Haus, where he continues to work part-time.

We met Jerahmy in 2012, when he volunteered at the farm in exchange for a CSA share. He returned this year to join the apprenticeship program, and has found the experience to be wildly different. Working part time, you get a partial understanding of how the farm works. An apprentice participates in the full process, and has the commitment and time to learn new skills. For example, Jerahmy didn’t know the first thing about driving tractor, and now he is one of our go-to people for tractor jobs. Full-time farming allows you to observe, and to discover how the farm is showing you what is going well and what needs attention.

He had worked at a smaller vegetable farm the year before, and was interested in Simple Gifts’ larger scale, and how we integrate livestock into our long-term soil management. He has enjoyed getting to know the animals and how to interact with them. He’s found that with animals, love goes a long way. As for a favorite vegetable, it has everything to do with the time and place. The first of each crop as it comes in, is the best to him.

Giving Jerahmy a send-off to California wine country!
Last year, he headed to wine country – Sonoma County in California – to work for Ramey Wine Cellars and learn about the wine-making process. He didn’t work in the vineyards, but participated in every step from receiving the grapes to the finished wine. Jerahmy is heading back across the country in a few days for the 2014 wine-making season. We will miss his hard work and one-handed pull-ups, but wish him well in pursuing his wine-making dream. And who knows? Perhaps wine-making in Amherst is in his future. Jerahmy has already circled back here three times, and with a warming climate, Amherst may become a fine wine-growing region.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Meet the Crew, Part I. Sue Pickering.

By Audrey Barker Plotkin
Sue Pickering in the carrot field

The apprenticeship program at Simple Gifts Farm is both the major way we get the massive work of farming done, and part of our mission to help create a sustainable food system. Training up the next generation of farmers is a responsibility, and often a joy. We hope that all of our apprentices carry their experience here into their lives as community members, professionals, and eaters, and that some will go out and find their own farms to create their own version of the right way to do things.

The apprenticeship is best viewed as a work-training program, rather than an exclusively educational experience. We are a small operation, so apprentices are involved in decision-making and managing aspects of the farm. Anyone with demonstrated ability may be given semi-independent work assignments in marketing, mechanical work, or crop pest management. This allows apprentices to take a sense of ownership in one facet of the larger whole. We are also members of the CRAFT program - Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training, a group of farms in the Hudson Valley, Berkshires and Pioneer Valley. The program brings apprentices to other farms several times throughout the season for a tour and a talk about a selected topic.

Every year, I particularly enjoy interviewing our farm apprentices. These talented people work amazingly hard to make the farm go, and I want to share my appreciation for them with everyone who enjoys the food we grow. Over the next couple of months, I’ll make visits to harvest fields and wash-stations to talk with our apprentices. Last Friday morning, I caught up with Sue Pickering as she harvested totes full of carrots for Saturday’s CSA pickup.

Sue grew up in Sudbury, Massachusetts, where her family had some small gardens. It wasn’t until she started at Hampshire College that farming became a passion, though. Arriving at Hampshire intending to study writing and film-making, a first-semester course titled “Saving the Planet” changed her path. Sue found herself sad thinking about the industrial agriculture system, and resolved to work on finding alternatives.

Fortunately, Hampshire has some great on-campus sustainable agriculture opportunities. Sue worked with Leslie Cox (long-time Hampshire College Farm Manager, who has recently moved to the Trustees of Reservations) for three years – summers and during the academic year. She mainly worked with livestock and learned to drive tractor, helping to put up many bales of hay. In addition, she co-led the student-run community garden in the center of campus. These experiences and courses inspired her senior thesis (Div III in Hampshire lingo) about garden-based education.

Sue came to Simple Gifts farm in part to learn more about growing vegetables on a larger scale. The intensity of greenhouse work – endless hours seeding and tending flats of seedlings – surprised her. This is especially true in the early season, but every week there are new crops to start in order to keep the CSA in veggies all year. Seeing a crop through from seed to harvest to distribution to our members, with the many hands-on steps involved, is something Sue finds particularly satisfying. If she had to choose a favorite crop, kale would probably win – it’s easy to harvest, and Sue likes to include it in nearly everything she cooks.

Longer-term, Sue would like to pursue work in garden-based education. With that goal and the farming experience she’s cultivated, Sue is well on her way to finding and enacting a vibrant part of what can save our planet.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Our newest farm toy

Farmers are always looking for a new way to do things better.  This last December, I spent three days in Manchester, NH, at the biannual New England Vegetable and Berry Association conference.  I spent the conference listening to other farmers talk about the cool equipment they had purchased and how it had transformed their operation, and despaired to think of how many hundreds of thousands of dollars I would need to invest in order to have all of that equipment.  After mulling it over all winter, I realized that I didn’t need to have it all, of course, but there was one piece of equipment that I could buy that would change everything for us:  The Kress finger weeder.  

The brilliant thing about the finger weeder is its rubber “fingers” that go down over the row and pull out tiny weeds while leaving plants that have established firm roots in the soil.  We transplant seedlings for many of our crops. If you finger-weed within 5-10 days of planting, the transplanted seedlings will have rooted but the weeds will still be tiny and vulnerable.  We have other cultivators that can go and take out the weeds in between the rows, but killing weeds in between the plants in the row is always the holy grail of cultivating.  Our older systems leave nice rows of crops, but need somebody to come behind with a hoe to clean up in between the plants, which takes an hour and a half per row if it’s done in a timely manner.  As behind as we sometimes are in the spring, it can take even longer if you don’t get there in time. Controlling weeds without herbicide is one of the labor-intensive aspects of organic farming. The finger weeder will help us reduce that intensive labor input.
The finger weeder is an American invention that was imported to Europe, where it was enthusiastically adopted by farmers and is now manufactured by the Kress company.  Until recently, an American farmer who wanted one had to import it herself from Germany.  The Kress company finally has a distributor in the U.S. and just sent over a container-load of cultivators, mostly based on the sales they generated from setting up at the trade show at one conference: the one I attended in Manchester.  I spent the winter researching other cultivators, and working on my business plan to see if I could afford the thing, and then applying for a loan to the ever-helpful Common Capital.  By the time I called the Kress representative and told him I wanted one, the container was about to ship from Germany, and I was just barely able to order a unit that he could build from the extra parts he had ordered.  

A local author came to the farm to greet our new finger weeder when it arrived.  I had seen him the week before and asked him about his current book project; he told me he had just returned from UC Davis, where people were working on a new cultivator called a finger weeder.  “Aha!” I said, “you should come see mine—it will arrive at the farm next Wednesday!”   He came and took some pictures of the equipment as it came off the truck, and we had some interesting discussions about agricultural equipment history with Michael, the Kress representative.  Apparently after WWII, there was a race  between the chemical companies and the tractor companies, both post-war versions of beating swords into plowshares.  We had some good technologies in the 1950s for controlling weeds by cultivation with tractors.  Unfortunately, the chemical companies won out here, and so many U.S. farms are getting by with using tractors that are fifty or more years old to cultivate weeds.  Our Farmall 140 is currently stuck out in the field where we couldn’t get it to start last Thursday and Friday (It’s red, or at least it was when it was new—you may have seen it as you drove by on Pine Street).  In Europe, they went much more towards mechanical solutions.  That’s why we have to import American technology from Europe now.
This last week, we took the finger weeder out, and in a morning, we had cultivated about 2 acres of broccoli, kale, cabbage, lettuce, and winter squash.  The finger weeder really does get the weeds in between the plants, just like it’s supposed to.  We’ll keep you posted on it’s performance as we use it more, but my initial impression is that this might really be a tool that takes our farm on a big leap forward.  Finally, a mechanical success story!