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Fresh Start Organic Garden

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

By Suzy Konecky, NOFA/Mass Beginning Farmer Program Coordinator

Shawn Ilinitch is a teacher at the Stetson School in Barre, MA. Stetson is a residential special education school for boys ages 9 - 21. Shawn teaches English and earth sciences during the regular academic year, but during the summer school session, he manages the new school garden, Fresh Start Organic Garden, and teaches about food systems.

The garden at the Stetson School is new, and Shawn has embraced the immense task of managing it. Prior to this, Shawn had not done any farming or gardening. He says of his agriculture experience, “In 3rd grade I probably did a grow a bean project, but I don’t even remember it, but that is what has been the most amazing thing about this.” Shawn marvels in how much he has learned in such a short time. Even with his limited experience, he is now successfully managing the garden while teaching the students and inspiring an appreciation for agriculture.

Shawn is also a mentee in the NOFA/Mass Beginning Farmer Program. As a participant in the program he has the opportunity to work with a mentor in the NOFA community. Shawn’s mentor is neighbor and fellow farmer Julie Rawson, also the Executive Director of NOFA/Mass. Julie and Shawn first connected last year when he reached out to farmers in the area of the school. Julie’s farm, Many Hands Organic Farm, is a diversified small farm, and Shawn and his students come regularly to help with various tasks. “The first time there she had us laying down cow manure, but the kids love it. They absolutely love it.” Their work at the farm really runs the gamut of all farm work - they get to collect eggs, weed, pick for and pack the CSA shares.

During school vacations Shawn was going out to the farm more often. Shawn shares that he has gotten, “tons and tons and tons of advice...I wouldn’t have been able to do what I do at school without [Julie].” He often asks her when plants are ready for harvest, and he is so excited to harvest that he asks early and repeatedly, especially with the melons, “I ask, is it ready? Is it ready? She tells me to be patient.” Shawn finds that he gets a lot of confidence from Julie, because she shows that she herself is confident that his garden will grow and be productive.

Julie also connects Shawn with other people, and he appreciates those networks. For next year he is hoping to put in drip irrigation. He has some other plans for changes - he won’t grow melons anymore because they take up too much space for his small garden. Next year he will add a perennial plot and put in raspberries, some perennial flowers, and comfrey. Shawn shares, “Julie is all about comfrey.”

Shawn says that the garden gives them an opportunity for something to be proud of. Most of the students involved are 13 - 15 years old, and they have never done anything like this before. They donate much of the produce to the school cafeteria, and sometimes they offer items such as beans to students during the day as healthy snacks. Shawn sells the produce as well - they post a sales sheet around the school so that staff know what is available. Harvest day is the favorite day for the students; they even sent thank-you cards to those who purchased the produce!

Shawn is very grateful to have the opportunity to run the garden, to receive guidance and support from Julie. He says, “We wouldn’t have been able to do it without Julie. There is no way. She is amazing with the students. She has achieved legendary status.” He continues, “I have been amazed by how humble the people involved in agriculture are. It is amazing to see people giving back. The students aren’t all going to be farmers but they will hopefully continue to participate in agriculture in some way - perhaps purchase CSA shares.”

To find out more about the Beginning Farmer Mentorship program that Shawn is participating in, please visit the Beginning Farmer Program page at: Note that we are NOW accepting mentees and mentors for the 2014 program. Deadline for applications is December 15, 2013. For questions, please contact Suzy Konecky, Beginning Farmer Program Coordinator at:


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