UMass in the city – training new gardeners

UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture professor Dr. Frank Mangan and graduate student, Zoraia Barros, conducted a gardening clinic at the East Boston Wellness Community Garden on May 31.

There were about 40 gardeners, including “future gardeners” (kids).  Two were native Portuguese speakers, two native English speakers, and the rest were native Spanish speakers.  Frank did a presentation on soil fertility and pest management in Spanish and then they both worked with the gardeners on specific questions related to their garden plots.

Frank speaking on plant care in Spanish

The UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture donated about 400 transplants of vegetables popular in Latino and Brazilian cuisine to the gardeners.  Fact sheets for five of the crops were developed by Dr. Mangan’s students considering language, culture and horticultural levels/skills of the target audience.


Some of the factors considered were:

  • they wanted to put together fact sheets that would be appropriate for multiple audiences, including staff who work for the gardeners
  •  the use of color pictures, in particular since there are many names in multiple languages for these crops
  • the literacy levels of the gardeners, which in the case of the gardeners at this community garden ranges dramatically

Zoraia working with the gardeners

The gardeners were extremely attentive and appreciative of the efforts of the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture to bring gardening expertise to the city.

See more information on Dr. Mangan, and please check out this short video on Raising Ethnic Vegetables in Massachusetts.



Laughing Dog Farm

Daniel and Divya Botkin, of Laughing Dog Farm, live on a 3+ acre permaculture-inspired farm in Gill, MA with their children, one other couple, and ten goats. They currently have one housemate, although there are usually several seasonal helpers. The property does not look like a traditional farm, but instead is on a hill scattered with a number of beds and greenhouses, a teepee, and structures created out of found wood.

Teepee at the farm

The house

They live in a unique, angular house that was built by members of the commune that previously existed on the land. We visited Laughing Dog Farm for a workshop that they led on winter gardening. Danny and Divya welcomed us into their cozy living room, heated by a wood stove, and began the workshop with an icebreaker for the ten of us to learn about each other. Danny taught us about the technical aspects of greenhouse structures, but also stressed the “psychological benefits” of being able to plant all season long. Being able to seed vegetables in December and January is how he stays motivated through the winter months. Although we couldn’t see the full potential of the property on the late fall day, the greenhouse was filled to maximum capacity and in peak season every planting space looks that way. Each greenhouse bed was interspersed with different vegetables, including lettuce, spinach, leeks, tomatoes, and beets. He calls himself a “carpet installer” instead of a gardener, and makes sure that there are no spots of bare ground.

One side of the greenhouse

Danny showing us a bed in the greenhouse

Danny spent twenty years teaching and counseling, but had a love for gardening and homesteading and was always searching for more community involvement. It seems that he connected them well when he left to start Laughing Dog Farm, where he is able grow food with loved ones and use the farm to educate others. The goat products and food produced on the farm provide more than enough for the residents. The excess is sold through a small CSA and some direct sales. However, it is clear that selling at markets and making money is not the point of this farm. Spreading knowledge is the community service that Danny and Divya value most. Their primary source of income is from workshops for the public, like the one we attended. They also host many WWOOFers to learn on the farm in return for food and board. Inspiring people to grow their own food, teaching them the necessary skills, and attempting to instill the correct mental models to do so are the values that stand out at Laughing Dog Farm.

Divya and Danny demonstrating how to bend hoops for winter hoophouses


– Maria Superti and Nora Seymour

Draft Horse Power at Amethyst Farm

Bernard Brennan

Amethyst Farm was started over a century ago by settlers who wanted to farm in the fertile valley that has become the progressive town of Amherst, Massachusetts. It has always been a family farm, changing hands over the generations, while maintaining the charming qualities of a rural homestead. The property has offered its residents the resources to establish a quality of life that produces self-sufficient results, with a horse-boarding business and an indoor equestrian arena that pays the bills, while an extensive acreage of hayfields lays the bedding to comfort both the two-legged and four-legged residents. This land has provided the good life to many generations of Amherst agriculturists.
Now, a new generation of sustainable-minded farmers has moved into the old farmhouse, with goals of returning to a simpler way of living.
Bernard Brennan and his wife and children moved to Amherst from Connecticut last year, with plans of revitalizing the old farm and making it produce more than just shelter for purebred show horses. The Brennans want to construct a local economy using Amethyst farm as a community center for the families of Amherst seeking more than the intellectual rigors of academia. Coming from Yale where he was a Professor of Behavioral Ecology, Bernard wants to put the horses to work and reclaim the land. He sees this stretch of open pasture and small woodlot as an investment for his children’s generation, and his goal is to correct the incongruities caused by the elder generations whose cultural norms have led to peak oil concerns and social disparities that threaten future generations enjoyment of natural habitats.

Making Hay in May 2012

When he bought the 120 acre property, Bernard had never worked with horses before, although he did extensive research on the behavioral patterns of wasp species, that led him to appreciate the diverse mysteries of animals and their relationship with humans. When he came to Amethyst Farm, he decided that draft horses would be a key element to creating an alternative lifestyle that answered the problems of our dependence on fossil fuel. Horses have played a significant role in the founding of this country, and Bernard plans to reform this relationship with his own two hands on the reins. He bought two beautiful gray Percheron geldings which he harnessed up and hitched to a fleet of horsedrawn equipment that would otherwise be pulled by antique tractors. Pioneer welding is a company that produces modern farming implements for draft animal power, and Bernard has used his equipment budget wisely in purchasing quality-built equipment that will work the land without dependence on gasoline or diesel tractors. Last year, he plowed his garden beds with the team of Percherons and planted his family’s vegetable garden in that horse-tilled plot. Instead of planting the ordinary broccoli and carrots, he plans to grow crops that will feed his family in a holistic way. His first crop of rice was successful, and he plans to grow nut trees and shrubs along a one hundred foot long hedge row which will develop into a self-maintaining edible forest garden.
This winter, Bernard plans to drive the horses into the twenty acre woodlot and harvest enough firewood to heat the old farmhouse, instead of filling the tank with expensive, imported oil.

An important aspect of the Brennan’s farming enterprise is trading and bartering with their neighbors.  They believe that modern citizens of the world have grown away from our neighbors, and that in order to create a healthier world, we must befriend the folks on the other side of the fence, and share the bounties of our harvest.  Part of this mission has been the regular monthly potluck dinners that the Brennans have shared with other families and friends in Amherst.  They share homemade bread, meats, vegetables, and skills with each other, in hopes of building longlasting relationships that will heal the wounds of our alienating society.  Another huge philanthropic contribution that Bernard has made within his short residence in Amherst, has been the provision of land to the newly established Many Hands Farm Corps founded by Ryan Karb, Eric Day, and George Daniel Vest just this past year.  All he asks from Many Hands is a share in their organic vegetable CSA and some help from their crew weeding the garden.  Bernard hopes to incorporate the Many Hands apprentice program into his draft horse operations within the next few seasons, by offering some training and hands-on experience with the draft horses.  This would be a huge contribution to the farm corps that uses tractors on a minimal basis and depends on human labor as the primary source of energy in their growing of high quality fresh local produce.

Bernard shares a philosophy with Blue Star Equiculture founders, Pamela Rickenbach and Paul Moshimer, who believe that this country was built by humans and horses together.  Horses pulled the stoneboats that built the iconic stonewalls of New England.  Horses pulled the wagons loaded with supplies and equipment that settlers used to establish new towns and societies.  We owe horses as much respect and gratitude as our founding fathers and mothers.  Without them, we would still be gardening in our backyards with our hands, and we would not even be able to refer to tractors and trucks in measures of horsepower.

When I think of sustainable farming, I don’t think of John Deere and International Harvester.  I think of sweating and backbreaking work, and plows pulled by stoic equines.  Only when we as humans learn to appreciate our animal friends and take as much care of them as we take of ourselves, will we be on the right course to repairing the damage we’ve done to this world in the last one hundred years – and that’s a pretty short period of time, since we invented machines.  Horses have been working with us for six thousand years.  It’s time we remember that and follow in their hoof prints.

I want to thank Bernard Brennan for showing me around his barnyard and stables, and for taking on the hard work of reestablishing the great occupation of horsemanship.  One farmer and two horses can plow our fields back to the health of pre-European settlement.  And I think that is a utopian future to work toward.


After a grueling in-class test on the anatomy and physiology of animals, I got into my friend Amanda’s black Pontiac Grand Prix with her, and our friends Jocelyn and Dylan and did this fantastic interview in the car. Amanda, Dylan, and Jocelyn, and their friend Lila who could not make the interview are the founders of UMass Chicken Group. They are a student run club that teaches students how to raise poultry for meat. This semester they started with 15 chickens, which they hope will become 40 next semester, and raised them in a free range, pasture rotation, sustainable manner. It is a completely student run organization where students bring in guest lecturers, do all the labor themselves, and make all the managerial decisions. The group had a rocky start with a freak snowstorm and inexperience causing several deaths, with the help of the barn managers the group took off. By the end of this semester they had processed twelve birds and sold them to group members. They hope to one-day raise enough birds each semester to become part of the student run CSA’s and Farmers markets in the area. The one thing I could not understand, as a very inactive member of chicken group was what kept them going, for the 4 am barn checks in the freezing cold, and the daily maintenance that the chickens need. For each of them it was a different answer, Dylan loved the interaction with the chickens, and raising them, Amanda loved what a learning experience it ended up being, and Jocelyn thought that following your food from beginning to end, and seeing every step it went through was enlightening and fun. All in all Chicken group is a great, jusdgement free place to go and learn a little about meat production for those who want it. (pictured from left to right: Lila, Amanda, Jocelyn, and Dylan)

Chicken Group Founders learning the basics of chicken processing