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Beginning Farmers Benefit from the NOFA Mentor Program

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2013 January Issue Newsletter

by Suzy Konecky NOFA / Mass Beginning Farmer Coordinator

Running a farm is like directing an opera. So says former opera director turned farmer Sharon Wyrrick. “Opera pulls together so many elements,” she tells me. In an opera, the musical elements, dancers, choreographers, costume designers, lighting and set crews all need to be integrated on a production schedule. Sharon has found the skills and experiences of integrating all the different facets of a production incredibly useful in her new farming endeavor. Opera direction is but one of the professional experiences that Sharon had before starting Many Forks Farm in Clarksburg, MA in the early winter of 2012. Many Forks is a small vegetable operation on 2 acres that Sharon is leasing.

Sharon is one of the mentees that was matched with a mentor as part of the NOFA/Mass Beginning Farmer Program. Her mentor is Don Zasada from Caretaker Farm in Williamstown, MA. Through the mentorship program, NOFA/Mass matches beginning farmers in the state with seasoned farmers who can offer advice and share resources. Mentors and mentees are matched based on interests, farming endeavors, and geography.

Sharon and Don visited each others’ farms at the beginning of the season. During Sharon’s visit to Caretaker, they walked the fields and Don explained the different choices he was making and what his reasons were. Sharon had been to Caretaker before, but this walk, full of details and explanations, enabled her to see it with new eyes. During Don’s visit to Many Forks, he gave Sharon the opportunity to ask him questions and also asked her questions about her choices. She felt challenged in a positive way. The questions and dialogue helped her focus on her choices and helped her examine her decisions more consciously. “It boosted my confidence,” Sharon said of that visit. Having that support from such a wellrespected and experienced farmer was invaluable to her in the beginning of the season.

After those initial visits, Sharon and Don have kept up an email exchange. Formalizing their relationship as “mentor and mentee” has made Sharon comfortable asking questions. “Even though it is a loose structure, it is a structure. So, I don’t have to feel apologetic about sending him emails.” She keeps a running list of questions in her notebook and then emails Don when she has collected half a dozen of them. She wants to be conscientious about emailing him judiciously and respecting his time. She says of Don and another neighbor farmer (Michael Gallagher of Square Roots Farm), “I had gotten the advice to never hesitate to ask another farmer when you need help. These two have put up with more than enough to offer triple proof of this sound advice.” The mentorship program offered by NOFA/Mass compensates farmers for their time, so mentees who may be hesitant can boldly reach out with confidence.

Sharon’s inaugural season at Many Forks Farm was a great success and she attributes much of that success to her various professional experiences. “On some level, I knew that I had some skills under my belt...but, this experience has affirmed that all those experiences, while they may seem disparate, have all been helpful.”

In addition to directing opera, Sharon has directed theater and has run a couple of different non-profit organizations. This work gave her experience keeping records, bookkeeping, accounting, designing flyers, creating a Beginning Farmers Benefit from thewebsite, and doing communications and public relations work. Her theater direction skills come into play when harvesting and setting up for the farmers market. All her theater work was on a tight budget, and she learned how to put something beautiful together with few resources.

When farmers market customers comment on the beauty of her display she thinks to herself, “Well, after 30 years of working with theater sets....” Sharon thinks about the subtleties that others may not consider, such as how to best direct the eye in her display. Sharon’s training as a professional dancer has helped her use her body efficiently and appropriately while working on her farm. Especially as an older farmer, she has found it necessary to be extremely conscientious about safety and comfort in the fields. Next year Sharon will expand her production and add a small CSA in addition to the farmers markets that she attends.

About an hour South of Many Forks is Hosta Hill. Hosta Hill is run by beginning farmers Maddie Elling and Abraham Hunrichs. Located in Housatonic, MA, Hosta Hill is a diversified vegetable, livestock, and food processing operation. Maddie and Abe started by making three unique value added products: kimchi, sauerkraut, and tempeh. The success of their value-added products propelled them into growing food on their own to use in their product.

Maddie and Abe are also part of the NOFA/Mass mentorship program. Their mentor is Tevis Robertson-Goldberg of Crabapple Farm in Chesterfield, MA. Maddie and Abe were matched with Tevis because Tevis has years of growing produce on the scale Maddie and Abe hope to achieve, and because Tevis has been growing grains and beans on his farm. Maddie and Abe mostly see Tevis at the Northampton farmers market, where they both vend their goods. The market is a nice space for the farmers see to see each other regularly and share updates and stories. Tevis has brought various grains and beans to the market to show them what he is working on. They have also spent time talking about the combine that Tevis uses to process his beans and grains. Tevis has had to do some repairs with his equipment, and Maddie and Abe enjoy hearing these details. This time of year, they have been talking about storage crops. Tevis is giving Maddie and Abe tips for storing produce through the winter. They have a long-term goal of growing not just produce, but also various beans for their tempeh. “We have a dream of full circle farming” Maddie says. That’s a dream that is shared by many beginning farmers, but each person interprets it differently. Maddie and Abe’s circles include food preparation that adds tremendous value to their products.

The products that Hosta Hill produces truly fill a niche in our local foods landscape; there aren’t many other farmers doing what Maddie and Abe do. Adamah in Falls Village, CT also produces farmstead commercial-scale veggie ferments and Hosta Hill has drawn some inspiration from that. No one else in this region is producing tempeh on this kind of farmstead commercial-scale. “I like to think that we’re part of the pioneering for value added processing and ferments,” Maddie said. Suzy Konecky adds, “I think Maddie and Abe truly are pioneers, and applaud their creativity and commitment to this project.”

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