Farmer Heroes | May 7, 2005

Getting Your Hands Dirty at Maggie’s Farm

Athol, Mass.


Spend any length of time at all on Maggie’s Farm, and you’re going to be getting your hands dirty. If your not reaching right into the soil to plant, weed or pick rocks, it’s a safe bet you’re going to be wielding a wrench to fix a tractor or some other piece of machinery.

“We’re working to create farmers – people who are able to leave the school with a working knowledge of what it takes today to engage in sustainable farming on a relatively small scale, growing vegetables, raising livestock, managing the farm and working to market their production”

Such activities are a regular part of life for many family farmers. And that’s why they are a big part of life for the one-year farm apprentices who come to Maggie’s Farm,a project created by Ben Holmes and designed to train a new generation of family farmers. Maggie’s is a 180 acre spread just up the road from Holmes’ original near Athol, Massachusetts.

This year, 10 students from throughout the country are engaged in learning how to enter farming and make their effort pay off.

“We’re working to create farmers – people who are able to leave the school with a working knowledge of what it takes today to engage in sustainable farming on a relatively small scale, growing vegetables, raising livestock, managing the farm and working to market their production,” says Holmes.

Students in the class of 2005 range in age from 18 to 57, and Laura Jackson, a documentary film maker and teacher from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is among them.

“My friends and I are looking at how we want to live the next part of our lives,” Jackson says, explaining what drew her to Maggie’s Farm. “We’re looking at getting involved in real farming. We’re talking about the possibility of owning land in common, not farming communally like you might have seen in the 60’s and 70’s, but sharing some of the responsibility. Farming is a commitment we’d share.”

Aiding the apprentices are forestry and livestock experts, row crop producers, and marketing gurus who work to give the students a full understanding of the many demands placed on small-scale producers.

“We’re working to develop viable business models for new farmers. We’re really open to students who are open to learning how to farm with a strong connection with the land,” says Chris Kurth, a marketing specialist from Sudbury, Massachusetts.

With Kurth’s help, much of the vegetable production from Maggie’s Farm finds its way into the Boston metropolitan area through a number of restaurants and farmers markets.

In addition, Maggie’s Farm instructors are working now to develop a financially viable model for raising and selling grass-fed beef. Increasing interest among consumers for this naturally produced meat has sparked enthusiasm among many farmers, including those working and learning at Maggie’s Farm.

Working with a small herd of Scottish Highland cattle and some Angus crosses, farm livestock manager Will Sloan-Anderson, says small scale cattle producers focusing on pastured animals face some daunting challenges. Part of the difficulty is that pastured animals mature roughly six months later than those raised in feed lots. But the bigger problem seems to be locating adequate processing facilities within close proximity to the farm.

Despite the challenges, Sloan-Anderson says he hopes the apprentices will be able to begin marketing the beef within the next twelve months.

While not all the apprentices who come to Maggie’s are focused on growing and grazing, Ben Holmes says it occurs to him that those willing to commit to a twelve-month cycle of work on the farm come away with tremendous value, regardless of their ultimate intentions.

“We have folks who have graduated from the program who are working in green markets in New York City. Some own their own farms. Some have just learned to see farms in a completely different way. It gives folks a completely different perspective on the world,” he says.

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