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The Grange – Then and Now

Sawyer Hall - Heath

Sawyer Hall is our Heath Post Office, Police Office, and Town Library with Town Offices for  the Selectbord, Administrator, Tax Collector, Assessors, etc. upstairs, but  for for many years a good portion of Sawyer Hall was used by the Grange for suppers, and even for dramatic productions.  I remember when we moved here in 1979 the Library was closed because the building was being renovated.  Someone gave me a tour of the large open upstairs where a small raised platform acted as a stage was set in  the ‘bay windows,’  and a Glenbrook wood burning parlor stove was placed on another wall.

I could picture Grange suppers serving all kinds of wonderful home grown and home cooked meals, but I couldn’t imagine what kind of plays were were put on UNTIL one of Heath’s Great Ladies gave me a box of plays and books of recitations.  The plays were mimeographed  and  given a green paper cover. One marked Very Good is Holloway’s Hired Hand – a play in one act by Earlene Day Benson of Groton, NY. It won First Prize in the New York State Plays Project in 1952 and was distributed for .35 a copy through the American Agriculturist Magazine.

As a community event the Friends of Library once put on a reading of this play which got a lot of laughs.  Harry Holloway is a farmer whose hired hand has just quit, Laura is his wife, Jim is the ex-hired hand and Jerry is the new hired hand. Lovesickness is the cause of the hired hand’s leaving, but before the  curtain falls the new hand Jerry, is revealed to be none other than a ‘college girl’ and the object of Jim’s affections who wanted experience on a farm. It all ends happily, of course, because the point of these plays was to encourage farmers.

The Grange was disbanded in Heath as in so many rural towns because the number of farms dwindled so. But out in Corvallis, Oregon, as perhaps in other places, the Grange is enjoying a resurgence as new young farmers meet over delicious Grange dinners for advice,  information and encouragement from the old timers.  How do I know this? I read all about it in the New York Times yesterday,  New Food Culture A Young Generation of Farmers Emerges.  A new generation of enthusiastic foodies can take credit for helping revive The Grange.

Goldthread Herb Farm

William Siff, co-founder of Goldthread Herbal Apothecary

“I have a good imagination,” William Siff told me as we sat in the shade overlooking the new Learning Garden in the midst of fields of medicinal herbs. He said he didn’t imagine the Goldthread Herbal Apothecary with its farm, workshops and national speaking engagements all at once, “But they are all a part of the same focus.

“As a move towards sustainable living herbal medicine is a powerful vehicle. As a society we know a lot about complex things, but we’ve lost knowledge of simple things, like providing health care without running to the doctor or to the drugstore. Herbs can provide one element of our self sufficiency and they can have an enormous ripple effect,” he said.

Certainly the ripple effect is evident in Siff’s life. Trained as an herbalist and acupuncturist, he and his wife Sarah founded Goldthread Herbal Apothecary in Florence seven years ago, then bought a house and land in Conway to grow organic medicinal herbs for the shop.

“When we started growing herbs we just jumped in. Friends and family helped us in the beginning. In exchange we taught them about herbs and health. As that teaching became more popular we developed the Farm to Pharmacy program. Last year we ran it for the first time as a formal entity with a detailed seven month curriculum.  We look at herbs from various perspectives. As grower we look at propagation, cultivation and harvest with some hands on processing experience, but also from the botanical perspective and from the clinical perspective.  We charge tuition for this program,” Siff explained.

Goldenseal in the shade

A tour of the farm includes fields of 150 to 160 herb species. Some, like goldenseal and American ginseng grow in shade, but most others grow in sun. On the day I visited the garlic was about to send out graceful scapes that can be used in cooking, hop vines were artfully arranged on supports and Siff was setting out rosemary plants. “One hundred and fifty in, and another hundred and fifty to go,” he said with a smile. “We treat rosemary as an annual and will harvest every plant in the fall.”

Goldthread Farm Learning Garden

Rosemary and every other herb that Siff grows will be represented by at least a single sample in the handsome large circular Learning Garden that is on the site of a huge dairy barn. The barn was taken down by hand in the fall of 2008 so that the wood could be reused.  Stones from the foundation now take their place as the bones of  the garden.

The rosemary field, like the others, makes use of raised beds. “We use raised beds because it is easier on the back. They are permanent, but we primp them each year – after harvest they are reshaped and reformed. It means lots of work up front, but less work over time.”

Sarah Siff who was active in the business when they began is now concentrating on their two young children, and on earning a Masters degree in education.

Goldthread classroom/herb drying loft/distillery

After taking an intensive herbal workshop Thomas Schieffer stayed on to be Siff’s ‘right hand man’ putting his engineering and construction skills to good use. The derelict garage is now attractive and energy efficient, housing a classroom, a drying loft for herbs and a distillery. Schieffer redesigned the base of the wood fired distillery and noted that “when you’re around fire, it’s fun. This is just another element that makes the whole process more intimate.”

The business in the shop and on the farm now uses five other employees.

Siff hopes Goldthread Herb Farm will be a model for others. To that end he speaks at national conferences, and has instituted three one week intensive workshops, in June, July and August, that focus on fundamentals. The goal is for attendees to take the ideas and information away with them to use in a variety of ways, for their own health care, in the operation of school gardens, or to grow marketable crops.

Siff is currently working on building a consortium of organic herb growers. He is contracting with Conway’s Natural Roots CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), Mountain View Farm CSA in Easthampton, and Nuestras Raices in Holyoke to grow organic herbs for them so they will have a larger local supply.

When I asked him if herbs helped give him energy for all these projects he hesitated. He said he used lots of herbs, but then mentioned ashwaganda withania somnifera which “gives a healthy dose of energy, but keeps you relaxed.”

If you visit the farm, maybe you will see it and learn more about becoming energetic but relaxed yourself.

The Goldthread Farm  is just one of the five unique farms and six private gardens that are on The Franklin Land Trust’s 22nd Annual Farm and Garden Tour scheduled for June 26 and 27 between 10 am and 4 pm.

Tickets are limited, please e-mail or call to reserve: or 413-625-9151. Tickets are also available from the World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield, and any remaining tickets may be purchased at the registration tent located at the Greenfield Savings Bank branch on Rte 116 in Conway the weekend of the event, which will be open 9:30-4:00 each day. Tickets are $20 for non-members, $15 for members. A pre-paid lunch at the Holly Barn in Conway is also available for $15.


The Franklin Land Trust Farm and Garden tour will show you the beauties of our landscape.  Together on the Land: Options for Ecological Living in Community is a tour co-sponsored by the Cooperative Development Institute, Equity Trust, Franklin Land TrustMount Grace Land Conservation TrustValley Community Land Trust scheduled for Saturday, June 12 from 9 to 5. Do you know the difference between a coop, condo, and cohousing? Logon to for full tour information. Maybe you will find a new way to get your dream home.  ####

Between the Rows    June 5, 2010


Crop Mobs

The New York Times Magazine had a story on Sunday about Crop Mobs down in North Carolina.  The idea is that volunteer ‘pop up farmers’ can show up at a farm to slave away for a day or afternoon, doing all that labor intensive work that small farms have so much of.

I know the Greenfield Garden Club has Weed Mobs before their annual garden tour, but I wonder if any local farms need a Crop Mob?  I’ll bet there are farmer wannabees around. An afternoon of Crop Mobbing might be just the education they need.  Farming aside, “Anywhere there is dirt, community will grow.”