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The Art of Farming – A fundamental human endeavor

Nancy Hanson

Jason Dragon, Nancy Hanson and Pete Solis (L-R)

Where do people learn the art of farming? Farmers used to raise farmers as well as crops of hay, wheat, potatoes or other vegetables. Children learned the art of farming at their father’s – or mother’s knee.

Then came a time when the farms got bigger and bigger, and more expensive, as did farming equipment, but the farmers became fewer and fewer. And yet we all need to eat. Where do our farmers come from now?

Recently I met with Nancy Hanson, Director of Farm Programs at Hampshire College at the barn where students and staff come to pick up their CSA order for the week. We were surrounded by bins of beets, pepper, carrots and other vegetables waiting for the week’s allotments to be collected. Hanson is a woman who grew up on a farm started by her grandfather, then passed on to her father. In the mid 1980s the federal government created a program to control milk prices by offering money to dairy farmers if they would sell their herds. Hanson’s father accepted the offer.

Carrots

Carrots for CSA pickup at Hampshire college

Hanson hadn’t wanted to be a dairy farmer, but she did want to work with plants; After high school she took jobs working with ornamental plants. “After some years I learned what I didn’t know in those jobs and eventually was accepted into the University of Connecticut and earned a degree in ornamental horticulture,” she said.

She continued working with ornamentals in Boston and Maine. For a couple of years she was the estate horticulturist in Manchester by the Sea. “A couple bought an estate that was in disrepair. They renovated the buildings, pruned and replanted trees, and perennials.”

Hanson said that it was during those couple of years that she leaned to think about design and aesthetics in ways that were new to her. As part of her job she cared for a quarter acre vegetable garden. “That’s where I was the happiest, and that’s when vegetables became a passion.”

In the 90s Hanson learned more and more about organic growing. “This was interesting to me because it meant you had to understand the whole system,” she said. In 1999 she applied for a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) position at Hampshire College, and she has been there ever since. Hanson works with two other professional farmers. Pete Solis mostly works with livestock like sheep, pigs, beef and hens, while Jason Dragon is mainly in charge of the vegetable fields. All three work with each other, and with the students.

Flock of sheep

Sheep flock at Hampshire College

Hanson explained that they have six students working full time in the summer with crops that are chosen to be ready for fall harvest. Work study students work on the farm in fall and spring. Some of those students do see farming as their life’s work, but others have different levels of interest in raising food.

“The goal is not to train farmers,” Hanson said. “Students work within academic programs like the introduction to food systems. We want them all to appreciate the goodness of fresh vegetables. This is the 26th year of our CSA. About one third of the harvest goes directly to the cafeterias serving the nearly 1500 students, and college faculty and staff.”

Hampshire’s program is not designed like a major in other colleges. Hanson explained that HampshireCollege was founded in 1965 by the other four valley colleges, the University of Massachusetts, Smith College, Amhers tCollege and Mt Holyoke College. Through the 60’s the administrations of these colleges felt the waves of new theories that were worthy of exploration and practice – but didn’t fit into their own academic visions. Thus was 800 acres of farmland bought and Hampshire College opened in 1970.

Section of Pick Your Own CSA at Hampshire College

Section of Pick Your Own CSA at Hampshire College

To this day HampshireCollege remains an experimenting institution with students creating their own self directed programs that usually include study related to societal or community problems. There are no exams or grades given. For example, the CSA program was designed and put in place by two students who made it their senior capstone project.

Hanson said that they try to bring the farm into other study fields. Art students come to the farm and one teacher brings students to look at water systems. They give tours, and this year they made bouquets with their own flowers to sell to parents bringing in the new freshmen. The bouquets sparked everyone’s interest in the gardens.”

Hanson said it is the combination of farming and teaching that makes her happy.

“I’m still here because as a teacher there is always some smart alec who asks me a question I can’t answer – and keeps me learning about something I’ve been involved with since I could walk. Some students are familiar with farms, but to some the farm is a totally new thing. I want them to realize that farming is a fundamental human endeavor. It is great to watch a student get it, when things start clicking.”

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Recently I talked to Ben Grosscup about a Pollinators and the Urban Homestead workshop where you can learn the key principles of gardening for pollinators on Ben’s urban homestead and emerging food forest. Sponsored by Western Mass Pollinator Networks, this free, in-depth workshop will be co-led by landscape designer Tom Sullivan (pollinatorswelcome.com)  Sunday, October 1, 9:30 a.m. to noon. 195 Chapman St., Greenfield.  PLEASE REGISTER by emailing your name to wmassbees@gmail.com. ###

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