No one arrives at The Farm School by accident, because it's not around the corner from, or on the way to, much of anything. You drive increasingly narrow, winding and erratically paved roads through the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts until the only signs are historical markers for battles that old Yankees fought against the British or Native Americans. But Emily DeFeo knows exactly where The Farm School is. "Over the rainbow," she says with a gentle smile.
DeFeo is one of 14 students paying for the privilege of spending a year living on and working a 183-acre organic farm. Today's lessons will include using hand tools, building fencing and tending pregnant cattle. Students come from around the United States with different backgrounds — soldier, rabbi, waitress — and different ambitions. They share a passion for using sustainable methods to produce what they all seem to call "beautiful food."
Two oversized pots of cabbage soup are simmering on the stove of the large communal kitchen. It's DeFeo's turn to prepare lunch with the farm's bounty, while her classmates are out harvesting fennel. Before enrolling here, she was working as a certified nursing assistant en route to becoming a registered nurse. "It's a wonderful profession," she says. "I loved my patients, but I couldn't see myself inside all day."
Since childhood, she'd dreamed of having a farm. When she found out about the program, that dream got some flesh on it. DeFeo has taken to Pride, a milk cow, and hopes to work on a dairy farm someday. "My hands get very tired milking, but I still love to do it," she says and, to illustrate why, fills a jelly jar with raw milk, golden as the October sunshine that streams into this kitchen. "It's beautiful, isn't it?"
The lifestyle she's embracing is rare. Only about 2 percent of Americans live on farms, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the average age of farmers is rising. Larger, more mechanized operations are providing most of the food we eat. In 2007, farms with $1 million or more in annual sales accounted for 59 percent of U.S. agricultural production.
Ben Holmes, who founded the school, wants to see his students buck that trend. So the faculty members teach the nuts and bolts of running an organic farm, as well as the economics that make such an enterprise viable. Students will leave knowing how to write a business plan, negotiate for land and market their goods directly to consumers.
The Farm School began by serving much younger students. The operation still includes a one-room middle school, The Chicken Coop School, and welcomes student groups from throughout the region for three-day experiences. In 2003, Holmes started the adult program on a parcel called Maggie's Farm.
That's a tip of the hat not to Bob Dylan but Maggie Rouleau. When she inherited the land from her parents, Rouleau was beset with offers from developers who wanted to subdivide the farm her great-grandfather started. "My roots go so deep, I couldn't give them up, I guess," she remembers. So she "leased" the farm to Holmes gratis while he got the program going. The Farm School purchased the land in 2008, and the program has about 60 graduates now. "The vast majority do farm," Holmes says, but he's equally proud of the lawyer who spent a year on the farm and went off to be a chef. "I do think the things that interest me most are the things I didn't intend," he says.
Holmes sees The Farm School as a counterweight in a world that's tipping toward the virtual. What would that old New Englander Robert Frost's "Mending Wall" mean to someone who's never repaired a stone wall — or at least seen one? So much of culture is "based on the tactile," Holmes explains, but our daily lives are more and more removed from it. "Our poetry doesn't make sense to us."
That's not a slam on technology. Holmes uses online tools for fundraising. Four of his students are blogging about their experiences. But information technology is not omnipresent here. Cell phones stay in the students' bedrooms during the workday. The only sounds that punctuate the morning as Kiyoshi Mino battles invasive grass in the kitchen garden are the gossip of roaming chickens and an occasional stomp or snort from the quarter horses in a nearby pen.
After graduating from Amherst College, Mino wanted adventure and enlisted in the Army. He was deployed to a remote region of Afghanistan, where he anticipated that life would be a grim business. The agrarian community he encountered defied those expectations. "Wow, these people really have a cool life," he says he thought. "Meanwhile, we were going in there saying, 'You need help.'" After his stint in the Army, he returned to Afghanistan as an international development worker but was dismayed at how little of his project's resources actually reached people in need.
Mino describes himself as becoming cynical about the usual channels for making a difference in the developing world. At the same time, he was reflecting on the high-consumption American lifestyle and its global impact. Perhaps he could make a difference simply by living — simply.
Meanwhile, his wife, Emma Lincoln, was working as a preservationist at the Library of Congress. Washington, D.C., was not her cup of tea. "I found I didn't have patience for the crowdedness, the dirt, the noise," she says. She liked the idea of buying some land and starting a farm but knew that neither she nor Mino had the skills to pull it off. Their research, she says, led them to The Farm School, "the least risky way to see if we can really do this as a living."
How well the students learn in this one year will have much to do with how successful they eventually are as farmers. So there is great earnestness in all that the students do, whether it's coming up with a fence design for a homework assignment or learning how to care for farm animals. They huddle around a veterinarian who's come in to tend the cattle and do some teaching while he's at it. He is up to his armpit in a cow and explaining how he's determined she has ovarian cysts. The students are rapt.
"How can you tell if a cow is pregnant?" one asks.
"You feel it."
"How do you keep from getting kicked?"
"I've done this thousands of times," the vet says. "It almost never happens. They actually kind of like it."
The students exchange doubtful looks and laughter. Most have had experience gardening, if not actually farming, before enrolling, but dealing directly with livestock is generally a new experience. Andrew Currie graduated from the program last year and has stayed on as a staffer. Lambing has been one of the most powerful experiences of his time here, he says. Sheep, so long domesticated, sometimes have trouble giving birth unassisted. When a ewe is expected to go into labor, students take turns watching her. Currie was on duty last spring when a lamb came into the world. He had to intercede when it had trouble latching on to nurse. While all this was going on, he was also roasting a lamb in an outdoor stone oven. Currie did enjoy his dinner that evening but "in a different way than I'd enjoyed any leg of lamb prior to that."
Though the days are active, pensive reflections like Currie's are common. Elisabeth Stern is a rabbi who decided to spend a sabbatical year here devoted to "the interaction with the miracle of life." She is interested in a modern interpretation of kashrut, the system of Jewish dietary laws. Many scholars are discussing other ethical principles that might be incorporated into kashrut, such as the humane treatment of farm animals. "I'm the only one I know who's actually tugging beets out of the ground," she says with a smile.
She's not alone in seeing a spiritual dimension to farming. Yesterday, the students planted a large field with garlic bulbs. When they were done, their instructor invited them to lie down on the ground they'd just sown and "send warm thoughts" to the garlic. Naturally, Stern laid down and blessed the plantings, but the 57-year-old woman of the cloth had doubts that all her 20-something classmates, so intent on starting real farms, would do the same.
"Is everybody doing this?" she asked herself. Opening her eyes, she scanned the field. Each student was down on the earth, wishing it well. "It was," she says, "the most perfect thing."