DIRTy Minds (Suitable for all Ages)

Written by Community Engagement Manager, Kim Kneeland

In mid-January, a small contingent from Wright-Locke Farm headed to the Northeast Organic Farming Association’s (NOFA) Annual Winter Conference in Worcester, MA. Many of us have been going to these conferences for years – days packed full of workshops, intensives, lectures, round-table discussions, and (since it’s a farming conference) really good lunch! It is always amazing to be in the same place with hundreds and hundreds of people who are passionate about the same things you are. Of course we’re all going about our passions in different ways and so it is always fun to soak up the creative problem solving and tips and tricks of the trade. I can never help but feel like a kid on Christmas Eve, giggling in anticipation for the next day’s adventures while I flip through the conference program circling all of the sessions I’d like to attend. And there are always so many! This year, I was forced to choose between:

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  • Developing Local Food Production/Education Programs at Jails
  • Balancing Fair Wages, Farm Viability and Affordable Prices
  • Climate Adaptation: Preparing Farms, Communities, and Regions for Climate Disruption
  • Edge Silvopasturing
  • Designing a Suburban Permaculture Homestead

And that was just ONE time slot! One thing that has been really interesting to see over the past seven years (for me at least), is to notice the major themes that take the stage during these conferences. You see these themes thread through the keynote speaker topics, the types of workshops offered, and what all your cohorts are talking about during lunch and breaks. Most recently, the focus seems to be solidly on soils.

Yes, DIRT! Everyone is getting really worked up about that lumpy brown stuff we walk on. And for good reason; the more and more I learn, the more it seems that soil offers some major solutions to the overwhelming problems we as humans are facing, from nutrition, productivity, disease and pest control, to resilience from climate change and carbon sequestration.

This year’s keynote speaker, Gabe Brown, talked about “regenerative farming,” and how focusing on soil health creates abundance, profit, healthy ecosystems, and resilience. Last years’ keynote speakers were the owners of Singing Frogs Farm who practice “No-Till” farming where they reap huge ecological and financial benefits by working with and protecting the soil life rather than destroying it through tillage. There is a HUGE web of diverse biota in our soils and with traditional tillage practices, this complex ecosystem beneath our feet is highly compromised and can be almost completely destroyed with continuous disturbance (picture the “Dust Bowl” – except this is not just a problem of the past!).

We saw the importance of soils pop up in almost half of the workshops, from talking about mycorrhizal fungi, the role of soils in carbon sequestration, linking soil and water to climate change, in holistic animal and land management, cover cropping, to an all day intensive seminar on managing the fertility of your soils. The common thread? Keeping your soils full of life and as close to intact as possible gives any operation a much stronger basis and helps mediate most large temperature, weather, pest, and disease pressure.

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One of the most significant revelations for me this year was learning about the relationship between plants and mycorrhizal fungi. In learning about photosynthesis in school, it had never really sunk in (if it had been mentioned at all) that when plants make their carbon based sugars using sunlight, CO2, and H2O, they actually exude a large portion of those sugars through their roots into the soils around them. But guess who’s hugging tightly to all the plants’ roots? Mycorrhizal fungi! They form their own complex “root” web around the plants’ roots and create a partnership. They get some of the sugars from the plants and, in exchange, they use their own root system to extend the reach of the plants’ roots in order to get minerals, micro and macro nutrients, as well as water. When fungi and plants mingle their systems, the root surface area (and therefore nutrient uptake) increases by 10 to 100 fold! This leads to stronger, healthier plants, more nutritious fruits, and more carbon sequestered in the earth (as the fungi convert the simple sugars into more complex carbon chains). When we break up the soil through physical and chemical means, we also break up the fungi (and plenty more than just them!) and destroy those partnerships in the soil. Without those partnerships, we have to artificially add those nutrients, minerals, and water that the plants need to boost their productivity. And despite our advances in understanding agriculture and soil science, we are far from understanding the ultra-complex natural systems that interact around and beneath us. Which means that it is no surprise that we are seeing the problems in our current agricultural system that we are: disease, pest pressure, less nutritious food, water retention and runoff problems, etc. etc. (Reference = Mycorrhizal Planet by Michael Phillips)

This is grossly simplified, but the overall message remains the same. We’ve got to start thinking long-term and rebuild our soils through the living organisms in the earth to create healthy, vibrant and resilient systems. At Wright-Locke Farm, we continue to learn and try to implement these practices as best we can. We take regular soil tests, we try not to till too often, we rotate all of our crops from field to field each year, we try to use cover crops and soil restoring crops when we can, and we use our own compost in the field to add nutrients and biota back into our soils. But it is a complicated system and our farmer has to balance many different needs all with a very limited amount of time, funds, and staff. We’ll keep on balancing, adapting, and improving as farmers do. One initiative that we will be undertaking that puts the health of our land, forests, and water at the forefront is our Agroforestry Master Plan which you can learn more about here. If you’re interested in being involved with our efforts, you can e-mail Archie McIntyre. (Photo credits to NOFA)

Farm Education for All

September 2017
Written by Education Director, Rebekah Carter

Fall after school harvest (Rebekah Carter 2016)

I’ve spent the past five years of my life serving as Education Director for Wright-Locke Farm, and the experience has been nothing short of incredible. But even now, five years into this journey, I am often asked, “What exactly do you do? What is farm education?” I think many who are not familiar with farm-based programs may assume that “farm ed” only relates to training programs for new or beginning farmers. Though this is certainly one form of it, farm education programs at Wright-Locke and many other small farms are typically geared towards the non-farming population of children, teens, and adults that make up a farm’s community. We may not all be farmers, but we’re all eaters, and the majority of us could use a little guidance when it comes to eating more locally and seasonally. Farm education gives farms a means to communicate to their customers both the knowledge and skills necessary to make better food and lifestyle choices, especially when it comes to growing or incorporating more fresh fruits, veggies, herbs, and other local foods into your diet.

Hosting theMOVE students at the farm (2014)Ideally, one’s participation in farm education will start as soon as possible during childhood, when our brains are absorbing all sorts of new information and we’re starting to develop skill sets, opinions, and habits- some of which may last a lifetime. While the desire to eat more healthfully can occur at any time in one’s life, it is evermore apparent how critical it is to develop these goals and habits when we’re young. Childhood and adult overweight and obesity rates are at an all time high in America and many other countries around the world, and their effects are not limited to clothing size; many chronic conditions and diseases are directly linked to maintaining an unhealthy weight or eating an unhealthy diet, and the ability to reverse or lessen these negative effects is often much more difficult than our ability to prevent them through diet and lifestyle choices. Children who start eating fruits and vegetables at a younger age are more likely to continue to do so throughout their childhood, into their teens, and then during adulthood. Farm education programs serve a crucial link between consumers of all ages, producers of farm products like fresh produce, eggs, dairy, and meats, and the food-consciousness and health of our society.

Looking at frames from a beehive (Rebekah Carter 2013)Wright-Locke Farm’s youth education programs offer children a unique hands-on experience learning about growing food, cooking, and the natural world on a historic working farm. All of our programs include lessons and activities related to agriculture, healthy eating, the environment, or natural science while utilizing the fields, pastures, barns, and wooded trails as our living classroom. Though we spend plenty of time focusing on subjects such as soil, compost, worms, plants, honeybees, Wright-Locke Farm’s domesticated animals (sheep, goats, chickens), land conservation, farm history, and local wildlife, we always include a healthy farm or season-inspired dish during our youth programs. Some days, this might mean simply going to one of our two organically-grown youth gardens to pick and snack on some of the harvest, be it Sungold cherry tomatoes, Mexican sour gherkin cucumbers, or purple, yellow, and green bush beans; other days, it means following a recipe to prepare a healthy dish together, using fresh foods from the garden, our farm fields, or the local farmers market.

Harvesting red lettuce for spring salads (Rebekah Carter 2016)

Whether it’s dehydrated kale chips, raw fruit and greens smoothies, overnight refrigerator pickles, salsa fresca, raw strawberry-rhubarb fruit leather, plant parts salad, or another of our favorite seasonal recipes, I’m always impressed by how much our youngest audience seems to enjoy picking, preparing, and eating these creations or sharing them with their parents (if there’s any leftover, of course). Time after time, I hear parents saying, “they would NEVER eat that at home!” or “I can’t believe my son/daughter ate that.” Even more exciting is when we hear about our youth participants cooking up veggies they harvested at the farm, or cooking up a farm recipe at home to share with their family. They may not realize it, but these kids are developing a taste for health-promoting foods, an opportunity that too few children seem to have but desperately need. In a world riddled with cheap unhealthy foods marketed directly to impressionable youths, it’s our responsibility to teach kids about the many nutrient-rich foods that local farms provide us throughout the seasons and how to include them in our daily meals.

Going into a hive during a beekeeping workshop (Rebekah Carter 2014)Farm-based education provides the perfect outlet for this type of teaching, learning and habit-forming, since program participants get to either directly witness or actively participate in the growing, harvesting, and preparation of seasonal fruits, vegetables, and herbs into a delicious meal, side dish or snack. But this type of education is not limited to youth audiences only. As the saying goes, it’s never too late to teach an old dog new tricks. Teens and adults often need just as much guidance as our youngest students when it comes to improving their diets with the inclusion of more fresh foods and healthy cooking techniques. Wright-Locke’s educational workshops for teens and adults are a great way to learn practical skills related to healthy living, small-scale “backyard” agriculture, and the wonders of nature. Though we host a number of programs featuring subjects like yoga, herbalism, home composting, bouquet and wreath making, stargazing and more, the majority of our workshops are directly related to growing, foraging or cooking up local and seasonal foods. Whether it’s fermenting your own sour dill cucumber pickles, kraut or kombucha, cooking and canning some homemade jam or apple butter sweetened to your taste, making nutrient-rich stocks and soups from scratch, raising backyard hens for eggs or bees for raw honey, growing your own gourmet mushrooms, or creating delicious dishes featuring just-picked veggies and herbs… our workshops strive to connect people not only to our farm and its landscape, but to local and seasonal foods of all kinds- from the farmers market, your own home garden, or even the wild forageable areas of your community and beyond.

Making fall wreaths in the 1827 Barn (Rebekah Carter 2016)We have experienced amazing growth in our educational program offerings and audience over the past five years, and we are passionate about our desire to continue growing so that we can offer an even larger variety of programs and reach even more audiences. But the farm’s existing infrastructure is extremely limiting in terms of what we are able to offer in our short but very busy seven-month program season, currently running from April through October (truth be told- we’re so busy, we’re starting to book some programs and events in early November). Between our organic agriculture, education programs, special events, fundraising, and farm stand, we have all functional farm buildings and fields in full use; due to our many activities and increasing number of staff and volunteers, we often have to share workspaces, tools, and supplies. The only sheltered space available for programs and events, named the 1827 Barn after the year it was built, is spacious and gorgeous no matter the time of day, but it’s not heated and does not have a certified kitchen for the many food-based workshops and activities we do. Our current business model has worked to get us where we are today, but cannot sustain the growth we seek. The only reasonable solution to our roadblock is the creation of a year-round program and event facility. A climate-controlled building with a certified kitchen would not only give us more dedicated spaces to utilize for our current activities; more importantly, it would grant us the ability to offer a wider variety of programs for a more diverse range of audiences, all year long.

Ed Center PerspectiveWright-Locke Farm Conservancy has received an incredible amount of support from the community over its almost ten years of existence. Contributions of all kinds- be they monetary, material, or good ol’ “sweat equity”- have been critical in our transformation from a simple pick-your-own raspberry plot to a bustling non-profit community farm with activities for everyone to enjoy. We hope that this amazing farm community, which has already done so much to help us achieve successes both small and large, will continue to work with us towards our goal of establishing a year-round facility to enable further growth of this extraordinary institution. You can learn more about our farm’s vision and how you can help us “Cultivate our Future,” here.

The Helping Hands behind Wright-Locke Farm

August 2017

Written by Community Engagement Manager, Kim Kneeland

I came to this farm in 2014, and now that I’m in my fourth season, it is interesting to look back at my first impressions of Wright-Locke Farm. Hired as a field assistant, and having no familiarity with the area (I’m from Central Mass originally), I came in knowing very little about its recent acquisition by the town and its transformation into a community farm. To the farm’s credit, you could have told me that the farm was in its 20th or 30th year of operation as a non-profit, working and educational farm, and I would have believed you readily. When I came in, the education programs were already thriving, the fields abundant and markets plentiful, the organization had so many strong and passionate leaders, and everyone seemed to plug in with their own unique role.  The truth is that, at that point, our farmer had only been there for three years, and she was the first staff member to be hired. Before Adrienne came on board, the entire operation was run by Wright-Locke Conservancy’s board and many other dedicated volunteers. Of course, the day-to-day was very different than it is now, but they still grew some organic veggies, hosted events for the community, and managed the U-Pick Raspberry crop.

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WL Farm Spring Fling 2010 (142 of 299)

By the time I was hired, Adrienne had cultivated a fully-functional, small organic farm. Rebekah, our Education Director, had a complete line up of adult workshops and youth programs that always seemed to be full of excited participants and Archie, our Executive Director seemed to be effectively pushing the farm envelope. It took me a while to realize how new this was to everyone, and it was astounding to think of how far everything had come in such short amount of time. As I see it, much of the success of the farm came from the early and loving support of many volunteers who were dedicated to preserving Wright-Locke Farm.

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Now in its 10th year of operation, the farm has a strong and passionate staff base manning the helm. And while we still have a lot of volunteer interest and assistance from our board members, the nature of the farm’s volunteer needs have changed. Instead of needing volunteers to plow our fields, plan crop rotation, and fill managerial roles, we need people who can readily plug in under the skilled guidance of our staff and to assist with specific seasonal farm needs. Every year, with more and more interest from the public in our programs, free events, raspberry picking, and farm tours, it is vital that we do have a professional staff to coordinate and manage all of the logistics of welcoming larger crowds to the farm safely and so visitors get the most out of their experience. Each year we continue to explore the balance between staff and volunteers because it is really important to us that we keep a strong volunteer presence on the farm. However, dedicating the time and labor to train  and manage so many new volunteers can be very tricky (and sometimes even counterproductive) . So far, even with our small staff, we’ve been able to meet our volunteer interest, and it is so rewarding, especially when we get people who come back every week (even every day!) all season. We’ve had volunteers who have consistently come to help out each week for four years, and besides creating lasting relationships with those volunteers, they end up functioning like trained staff members and are invaluable to our efforts. It’s a great partnership, really. We are dedicated to the education of our community and, while workshops, classes, and youth programs are a great way to learn, volunteering is another avenue for experiential learning at the farm.

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Two great examples of where volunteers plug-in well to the farm are our U-pick Raspberry Operations and our Chicken Chore Volunteer program. While they are no longer being coordinated by volunteers (many thanks to Donna Wainwright, Susan Ampe, and Berit Ahmad for all of your hard work over the years), all of the day-to-day work is done by volunteers – and that’s no small feat. Once raspberries are ripe and ready to be picked, we open our fields to the public for 5 – 6 days a week. This means we need a constant presence on the farm to greet pickers, tell them where and how to pick the best berries (and what to avoid), help weigh and pack their berries, wash and dry all of the red-stained buckets,  as well as setting up, and breaking down the raspberry station. That’s a lot of volunteer hours over two months! It ends up being a fun time – it’s a great way to enjoy some time outside, interact with other community members, and participate at the farm during the excitement of harvest time. Volunteering with U-Pick Raspberries is a great starter opportunity, with its flexibility and easier time commitments.

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Our Chicken Chore program, while requiring more responsibility and time overall, has been very successful over the years and is such a great way to immerse oneself in “farm-life.” Chicken chores at the farm started about six years back when a local middle schooler suggested keeping chickens. Much like parents say to their children after they’ve asked to get a puppy, we asked “who’s going to take care of them?” She said “We will” – and that they did. The program started with school children caring for baby chicks and then, after they brought them up to the farm once they were old enough, volunteers (some of the same families who raised them) continued to care for the hens daily. The system continues to this day. Of course, it’s not perfect – there are a lot of moving pieces and it’s hard to coordinate between so many people and sometimes we don’t have enough people to cover all slots, then staff members have to cover on top of their already full-plates. But overall, this is a program that thrives because of our volunteers and their dedication to taking care of these farm animals. Many of our chicken chore volunteers are families who do chores together – it’s a great way for children (and adults!) to learn about farming, interacting with animals, working hard, and managing responsibilities. Unless you grew up on a farm or have a couple of your own backyard birds, it’s not an experience that many people get.

We are so lucky to have such an involved community and we are excited to keep harnessing the ideas and efforts of our wonderful volunteers. If you are interested in volunteering at the Farm, check out our Volunteer Opportunities page or contact me at kkneeland@WLFarm.org. We’d love to have you up at the farm!

Dietetics Meets Farming

July 2017

Guest post written by: Brianna Trainor, MPH coordinated dietetics student at UMass Lowell

For those of you that don’t know me, my name is Brianna and I am in my third and final year at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell for my masters of public health with a concentration in dietetics. As we enter the month of July, my community nutrition rotation at Wright-Locke Farm is coming to an end. I had the pleasure of working with some great people and had the opportunity to learn so much about the farm and agriculture.

 

Here is some insight as to what my community nutrition rotation encompassed at Wright-Locke Farm. My days at the farm consisted of a variety of the following activities : farm work, after-school child education programs, assisting with adult education workshops, youth summer education programs, the Jenk’s Center Gardening Club, involvement in the first speaker series, visiting the farm animals, and working at farmers’ markets.

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The most valuable lesson that I am leaving Wright-Locke Farm with is the relationship between nutrition education and preparing foods specifically with children. When children are involved in the planting, harvesting, and cooking processes, children retain more nutrition knowledge than they would without being involved in the processes. Children retain nutrition knowledge while they are performing tasks. One of the days at the youth ed program, the kids made a berry kale smoothie. The children groomed the garden, harvested the kale, and put all the ingredients in the blender. We talked about the health benefits of the smoothie and the children happily (!) enjoyed their healthy snack.

 

I am leaving this internship with more knowledge and experience than I could have asked for and I am very grateful for everyone at Wright-Locke Farm for giving me this opportunity.

Postscript by Wright-Locke Farm Staff: Thank you Brianna for your energy, hard work, and willingness to learn from what we do at the farm. Like you, we believe that good, fresh food, cooking, nutrition, farming, and animal management are all important puzzle pieces in being a heathly individual. We know that you’ll do good things for your community whereever you go!

If you’d like to hear more of Brianna’s thoughts, she was also part of this interview with Renee Barrile.

Wright-Locke’s “Night-time Farmers”

Web_2016 Family Farm Night

Written by Amy Rindskopf, Event Manager

The month of May means many things in the Farm’s calendar – seedlings start to leave the greenhouse for the fields, after-school education programs return, and the farm stand moves from once-a-week eggs-only towards a full week with veggies, eggs, and delicious snacks. For the Farm event team, it means something even more: parties return to the 1827 Barn!

Regular visitors to the farm know that we do many public events throughout the warmer months: Family Farm Nights in June & July are our most popular event but we also do Spring Fling in May (this weekend!), Summer Solstice and Fall Equinox parties, Farm-to-table Suppers in the late summer, and our annual Harvest Dinner in September.

The most attentive visitors know that we also host private events, everything from children’s birthdays to graduations to family milestones to weddings. People who come to the farm to celebrate the important moments in their lives aren’t just looking for a place to have a party – they are connecting themselves and their guests with history and nature in a way rarely seen in event spaces.  It’s why so many people come back to our events year after year. And why more than one party guest has become a volunteer in our fields.

Web_Colored lanterns in the 1827 BarnWeb_Harvest Dinner 2014

Our event team definitely has the most unusual job description at Wright-Locke Farm: they must love helping organize beautiful events, but they also enjoy working outside in all weather, moving heavy wooden barn chairs, climbing ladders, having dirty hands, and chasing runaway paper lanterns (and the occasional lost sheep). These night-time farmers of Wright-Locke Farm are some of the best problem solvers I know – they can hang anything from the Norway maple on the hill used as our wedding ceremony site. Need to hang a poster in the barn without using any nails? But of course! Sudden hailstorm changing your outside summer fete to a cozy fall barn party? Not a problem!

Here’s looking forward to a season full of starry nights, happy families, vibrant music, and delicious food!