Just Roots – The Journey of Purpose

Hey everyone!

My name is Nate Rogers. Over the past few months I have been interning at the Just Roots farm located right here in Greenfield Mass. I am new to this whole blog process, so bare with me as I learn the ropes. These blogs will be about my daily experiences, goals, and events that take place at the farm. To start off, I’ll share with you how I got involved with Just Roots.

While incarcerated, an opportunity arose where a few selected people would be able to work on a local farm a couple days a week and receive college credit from Greenfield Community College. The hiring process was based on a written essay and a formal interview. Out of several, myself and one other person were chosen to come work at the Just Roots program. I could hardly wait to start the journey into the farming life.

Before I ever even heard of Just Roots, my days were filled with anxiety and little hope for my future. Its been several weeks since I walked out of those jail doors and I can confidently say that I am more grounded in life then ever before. Just Roots has given me a purpose and drive in life that was once missing. I am eager to share with you all how my life has gradually changed through working at the farm.

(Here is me harvesting some Dino Kale earlier this year, and yes I am wearing a bee helmet.)

Them buggers after my soul!

Them buggers after my soul!

(This is me and my friend Juan acting triumphant over all the kale and broccoli we just planted. There is so much more to plant!)


Abundance at Rockridge Retirement Community

photo 4 copy( Above is Ian putting in shallots)

photo 3 copy

(Above Photo: The New Beds )


I am not sure how to express the amount of learning that has occurred and knowledge obtained throughout this semester! I will try to capture the feeling in words.

For the past semester and a half Ian Walton and myself have been working on creating a small scale food system for Rockridge Retirement Community in Northampton, Ma. The idea being that the kitchen staff and residents can have full access to food from a garden.  The kitchen can easily access the garden beds due to their proximate location–this ease of access will help the integration of produce into the meals served at the community.

Ian and have spent hours going over what the constraints were for the project and how to keep it sustainable and a cyclical system. We proposed to Rockridge, back in the fall, that we create a guidebook for future volunteers, interns, staff and residents. Throughout this process Ian and I have been conscientious of bringing the knowledge we have learned in the Farm & Food Systems program at GCC to help us. We have sourced all our materials locally and through donations. The amount of support we have received and encouragement is invaluable. It is amazing just how much people are willing to help if you just ask.

The other amazing aspect of this internship is getting to know the residents at Rockridge. I have befriended a few and ones whom I see regularly. Their reception to our work in the garden is wonderful to see progress over the last few months. The other day I was out working and I saw Miriam, a regular that I run into and have struck up a friendship with. She helped me plant pansies and violas (donated by Andrews Greenhouse) for Mothers Day. We planted in the beds and put them in big pots and sat and chatted for hours. It was such a wonderful exchange. She was telling me about her history and her trials and tribulations in life and we were both just enjoying each others’ company. It is very apparent that  a lot of the residents don’t get enough company. It is such a warm feeling to see them light up when they are given the chance to be heard. photo 5 copy(Above is a photo of Miriam planting pansies)

Currently sprouting in the beds are: Peas, Leeks, Scallions, Shallots, Romaine Lettuce, Chives, Times, Spinach, Oregano, Mint, Mesclun mix and Cabbage.  We have a big planting day May 30th where we will put the rest of the plants into the ground. Once that is done we will then focus our attention on creating a system for weed and water maintenance. Along with that we will be documenting and finishing up our guidebook.

It is my hope that as this internship winds down, that we will have helped Rockridge succeed in maintaining this system. I will be contributing volunteer hours throughout the summer to see the garden to harvest. However after that, there will be a need for regular volunteers and interns to help maintain and scale up the system. It is a wonderful place to be and this project is just constantly growing and moving in directions that are above what is expected! I am putting the call out to everyone on this blog site who might be interested to contact me.

I want to give a huge Thank You to Ian for being a wonderful partner! I also want to Thank everyone else for contributing to the success of this internship.





Rockridge Final Reflections

This internship has been spectacular. The best part is, we’re not quitting! Although our fall internship concluded and our spring internship is wrapping up, Olivia and I will continue to work with the wonderful folks at Rockridge Retirement Community through the summer and into the fall. We should even be having some other interns from the five colleges joining the ranks!

We’ve got some of the plants that we started from seed in the preexisting raised beds already, four new raised beds have been built–Olivia and her father building two and she and myself building the other two, with a big community planting day coming up Friday May 30th.

All I can say, and I’m sure that I’ve said it a hundred times before, is that the people at Rockridge are amazing. From the staff that has been essential facilitating all pieces of the project to the residents who watch through their windows or grab a shovel and a rake, this community is great! Olivia and I have been able to do work and have fun at the same time, a wonderful combination.

Thanks Olivia, Thank you Rockridge, and Thank you GCC, I’m happy.

Olivia sharing our plans with Violet Young

Olivia sharing our plans with Violet Young


Jail Garden Internship part II

Two of the most important factors in making this project possible were flexibility and commitment to a core vision.  We knew that we wanted to install a functional organic garden at the jail, and teach people the skills involved along the way.  That vision is now fully realized, although the outcome appears to me a bit different from when I began.

I started with a handful of “learning objectives” that seemed straightforward enough. To design and build a compost system, teach men who are incarcerated about composting, teach workshops on organic gardening, support the installation and facilitation of the organic garden and it’s 1-credit GCC class.

I was very lucky to have made an ally in Mark Leonard, who teaches GED programs at the jail, and is the shop teacher at the High School where I also work.  Mark and I hit it off right away, and we decided to integrate my “workshops” into his Monday and Friday night Community Construction classes, a perfect fit all around.  Very early on, we realized that the implementation of a compost system would be more complex than it seemed, with a lot of concern about pests and aesthetics.  We looked at our budget, and decided that it would be more cost effective, sanitary, and pleasing to the eye to purchase a pre-built composter that would take the place of one built on site.

That was the idea that we started to work with, and as soon as we were about to order a state-of-the-art composter to be delivered, we decided that our origional garden location, inside the main perimeter fence, was not ideal.  We relocated the garden plot to outside the fence, which allowed for easier access, more sunlight, and other benifits all around.  It did however leave us with the challenge of an exposed garden.  The back acerage of the jail is quite exposed to wild garden-loving animals of all sorts, including the stomping and pooping grounds for the Sheriffs K-9 unit.

We decided that a solid fence for the garden would be ideal, and that it would be a good initial project for the classes.  This essentially took the place of the composter, both financially and temporally.  We only had so much money, and so many classes to work with, so we went with our top priorities and worked forward from there.  During these Monday and Friday night fence building classes, I was integrating lessons about composting and gardening along the way.  It worked out well to have many of the men from those classes to have a head start on the planning and organizing of the GCC garden class to come.

By the time we had the fence up, we were left with a few sessions that we devoted to building the raised beds, and terra-forming/landscaping to level them into our sloped sight.  This was quite a project with solid ledge about 2 feet down, and a very wet spring that left us with heavy, wet soil.  It all worked out, and by the time the GCC class was to run, we had everything in place, and a great group of men who were committed to the project, as well a learning a lot about garden prep and installation.

Having spent so much time around the jail, I was used to the flow of things by the time Charlie showed up to help teach the first GCC class.  What I’m referring to is things like having inmate count start right at the beginning of your class, and the need to just wait the 15-20 mins. (of your 1.5hr class) for it to wrap up.  Or the fact that your materials are in a locked room, and the only CO with the key has gone home for the day, so you make do with what you have, ect. These are things that you come to compensate for if you work there full time, but for an adjunct teacher it can be unnerving and out of the ordinary.  Anyhow, it was good for me to help guide the class along, and Charlie went as far as to label me a co-instructor.  The Thursday night classroom sessions were great, as they essentially consisted of me and Charlie talking about our passion for growing food with stories and questions and answers.  We all got to share about what draws us to want to grow a garden, and how that positively effects everything around us.

The first Sunday 10a-4p class was a continuation of the landscaping work, the bed building and the planting of a 5 blueberries and an apple tree.  It was all very straightforward with plenty of wheelbarrow hard work and breaks to learn and plan along the way.  The second Thursday was when we really started getting into the good stuff of planting charts and trellis design, etc.

By the time the second Sunday came around, I had spent a lot of time acquiring resources–plants, seeds, mulch, compost, building materials, ect.  This was a lot of work, especially for myself who is a primary bicycle commuter.  There were many trips back and forth trying to carry a bale of hay on the back of my bike (I quickly realized the desperate nature of such an endeavor and opted to use the car I share on occasion).

We ran the class on one of the nicest days of the spring, few clouds and 75 degrees all day.  We split off into two crews: one working on soil and planting, the other on trellis design and construction.  This was great as there were some of us who are more skilled and interested in the infrastructure of the garden, and others who were more into the horticultural aspects of the project.  In the end we got to survey all of the entry points, as we switched up the groups a few times, and we were all working next to each other anyhow.

In the end we wound up with an amazing garden.  Six beautiful raised 4×8 cedar beds, custom wooden trellises, and high quality planting starts from Just Roots.  We brought in 4 yards of compost/loam mix for the raised beds, and mulched the entire garden with straw.  It turned out very pleasing to the eye, and the black chain link fence that we built ties everything in quite nicely.  There is talk about incorporation the fence into a trellis base for annuals or grapes this season or next.


What would I do next time?

I was unable to get anyone to sign up for a CSA this semester. If I was to do this differently I would do things a little differently.

I would be in the lobby more and try setting up in the east building. I would also try to be a little more forward while set up in these locations. I spent a lot of time just sitting back waiting for people to come over to me.

I would also do a lot more class room presentations. I feel that for the class room presentations I did they were very well received, even if no one signed up. They seemed to be able to to reach out to the most people.

I created a survey to better understand why people weren’t signing up but unfortunately I created fairly late in the semester and did not get a chance to really use the information. I found out that the best way people heard about the CSA was from word of mouth so I would go around talking to more people to be able to help more people know about the it. The unfortunate thing is that there is not a large portion of students looking for a CSA mainly because they already have access to local food. Which is great just! ( Just not for this CSA 🙁 )

Good Luck to Enterprise Farm and any future interns that might take this over.



Jail Garden Part 1

This will be the first post of a three part series about my experience as an intern working to build an educational garden and compost system at the Franklin County House of Corrections.  I had originally hoped to be posting on this blog throughout the semester in order to document my experiences more throughout, however due to the understandably rigid bureaucracy of the Jail, and the evolution of how the program unfolded, these afterthoughts will have to suffice.

First off I want to say that this internship was not nearly as easy as it sounds.  I have a yearning to shoot mega doses of social justice into the places around us that need it most, but I’ve realized now how much of that work is tedious, monotonous, and down right clerical at times.  Much of the hours that composed this internship were spent with my eyes pasted to the screen of a computer, often with my phone sandwiched between my ear and my shoulder trying to sort out the logistics of this project.

For the first several months, given it was the coldest winter in years here in New England, the highlights of this internship were when I actually managed an in person meeting with someone who was helping me pull things together.  I say “actually managed” because the staff of the FCHOC are particularly overworked, and finding a time to meet that works for more than 1/2 of a person is quite tricky.  Luckily, other facets of my life have me visiting the jail on a regular basis so for the most part I could survey the human and physical landscape during my various times there.  Everyone has to sign into the jail upon arrival, and often I would sign in as a GCC visitor, leave for lunch, come back and sign in under another organization, leave and do it all again in the same day.  Kind of crazy making, and the C.O.’s had a particularly wonderful time trying to figure out what the hell I was doing there.  At some point, given that I also worked for Amherst College at the jail, they just started to call me “that teacher”, and it fit good enough.

That’s a good prelude to my next post which will follow shortly…

On a Whim

Today was such a productive Monday, following a very unproductive Saturday and Sunday. The weekend and my plans slipped away. However I woke up today determined to get things done!

Ian and I are trying very hard to keep this internship at lowest cost possible. We are actively sourcing, acquiring and making materials so that we don’t have to spend unnecessarily. Plus, it is like one big giant treasure hunt and puzzle figuring what fits and where to go. About a week and half ago Ian and I purchased the seeds from High Mowing and last, I believe, Wednesday they arrived. Very relieving news because we need to start planting so we can have starts for transplanting once the ground thaws and shows itself. With this in mind we realized we needed a good amount of soil to do such a task.

Ian brought to the table an option to use his father’s soil from a digging project that has left heaps of dirt behind. We decided that’s what we’d use. We then talked with Tony Reiber, Soil Science instructor at GCC, about what soil we were thinking of using on our plant starts. We told him about Ian’s father’s soil, and he immediately said ” you have to be careful of the weed pressure.”  What he was saying is that there could be a lot of weed seeds mixed in with the exposed soil. It really didn’t even occur to Ian or myself that this could pose a problem. It definitely would be one a big problem for maintaing weed growth in the gardens.

Ian remembered seeing the spot where the soil supposedly was being covered with weeds. So we went back to the drawing board. Our constraint now (being that we had already submitted the budget so we could not add potting soil to the cost) and NOW the seeds are already here, anxiously waiting to get planted. So I suggested seeing if we could get some soil donated by local farm and garden centers. Rockridge has a contract with Martins Farm in Greenfield that picks up their compost weekly. I pitched that we try to get in contact with them and see if we can recycle “their” compost back to Rockridge (talk about a closed loop system). That question is being worked on right now by the Head of Dinning Services. Hopefully we will be able to work with Martin’s down the road and have some nice compost to work with too.

Ok, now the preamble is over and the point of my story comes into play. (all above is important…just to note).

Today I was driving back from an interview in Northampton; I was driving along thinking about all the things I didn’t do this weekend and how am I supposed to catch up with my very fast paced life, when on a whim I pulled my car into the Hadley Garden Center and told myself I am going to go get some soil donated. I went in and ask the lady at the front desk who can I speak to about donations and do you do donations? She called Tom who came striding in with a huge smile on his face and said “What can I do for you?” I told him what I was doing and about GCC Farm and Food Systems Program and how I am working with Rockridge Retirement Community that is non-profit and that I am creating a garden for the use of residents, dinning service and staff. He stopped me and said, “What do you need?” I said sheepishly that I needed potting soil. He then proceeded take to a wide variety of potting soils and said, “Here is what you need, how many bags you want?” I said “two.” He grabbed two brought me back to the counter filled out a little slip, brought the bags to my car put them in and said. “To be honest I thought you were looking for a job. Do you need a job? ” I told him I was following up on some other ones but if they fall through I will definitely be back. I then thanked him and was on my way. THERE IT IS SO SIMPLE. TWO FREE DONATED BAGS OF TOP NOTCH POTTING SOIL! I was amazed. I have now been given a little more hope and confirmation that what I am doing will inspire others to help and change the system. THANK YOU Tom from Hadley Garden Center!

I now conclude my story with these words instilled in my head by wise old grandmother, “There is absolutely no shame in asking.”  Thank you for reading.

Writing is Fun

Oh it’s nice. It’s nice to feel like things are easy and stress just isn’t around. They just decided to stay away for a bit, not bother. Because writing is fun, and when it just happens it’s magical. Words just flow. Words that mean a lot to the writer, and will probably have a similar effect on the reader.

This Garden Guidebook that we are creating to help Rockridge Retirement Community manage their gardens into the future is a blessing, for me, and for Olivia I know it is too. It blows our mind on the regular. Some days one of us will look at the other and just say,”you know we’re pretty much writing a book.” I don’t know if I have fully realized the magnitude of the thing we are working on, but I know when we talk about it, when we run into Abrah or Tony and tell them the latest on the project, it’s like we realize a little more and a little more what we are really helping to create. We’re facilitators, and I am super happy with what we are facilitating.

No pictures this time, just words. Words.

The Art of Teamwork

Olivia Holcomb and I were lucky enough in the Fall to have gotten ourselves involved in the same internship, and now that we are deep in the planning for it (the internship consists of managing the already existing vegetable gardens at Rockridge Retirement Community, designing new raised beds for more gardening, and creating a guidebook including plant information and a comprehensive management plan for the gardens) I am incredibly thankful for having a teammate as great as Olivia. We have been able to get together at Rockridge, coffee shops, and our homes to work together, and then also put in time individually to make progress on a project that has us both really excited.

Just a couple of days ago we convened at Olivia’s apartment, with the broad goal of working on the project. This seems to me the way the internship has gone of late for the both of us: each of us having a serious desire to put time and effort towards developing plans for the gardens, but feeling like we didn’t know where to begin. On Monday when I went to her place, we shuffled around from the living room to the kitchen, taking on pieces of the project together and individually, and without a doubt feeling like we were doing good things. However, there was still a feeling of squirminess that was apparent in each of us. Thank the Heavens at some point Olivia looked at me and said something to the point of “Ian I need something real, something I can hold and write on and touch.” Her statement was in response to the fact that a lot of what we have been doing has been on the computer. We have been in email contact with the Volunteer Director at Rockridge, Abrah Dresdale at GCC and now have multiple Google Docs that contain most of our planning and guidebook efforts to date. What happened after she said that was kind of hilarious, and incredibly productive all at once. We each finished the tasks we were working on and then proceeded to grab a stack of computer paper and spread out across her kitchen floor creating a sort of storyboard/outline of the guidebook and all of the individual pieces of our larger mission.

Olivia's Olivia's


When she proposed the idea I thought it was really great and could tell it was exactly what she needed, so naturally I was all for it. What I didn’t realize is how invaluable it would be to me. It was EXACTLY what I needed too. The outline we created is amazingly quite thorough. Not that I didn’t expect it to be, but rather I didn’t have any specific expectations because it happened so fast. We were planning on taking 20 minutes to finish what we were already doing, then move to the storyboard. Less than ten minutes later we were spread out across the kitchen floor 5 pages in to what became an organized and nearly complete “guidebook” for ourselves to create a guidebook. 

Sometimes all it takes is a shift. Sometimes all it really takes is trying something different, and then fireworks go off (appropriately we were listening to a musical group named “Explosions in the Sky”). Sometimes all it takes is a friend, a partner to collaborate with, someone to shake you and say “this way isn’t working! Let’s try this!” Boom before you know it you’re making more progress in 45 minutes than you have made in three weeks. Teamwork is beautiful. It’s enjoyable, it’s tough, it’s inspiring (Olivia blows me away with her creativity) and it’s helpful. I really feel blessed. Since the beginning of this internship Olivia and I have been dumbfounded by this opportunity. I couldn’t think of a better culminating project for either of us. I just graduated and she is nearing the end of her Farm and Food Systems Associates Degree, and this endeavor brings together all of the things we have been learning about and allows us to practice them in a setting where we can give back. It feels appropriate. Since I started at GCC I have found myself increasingly becoming a part of a larger community. One that is really, really beautiful.


Olivia and Ian here,

O: On Friday January 17th, Ian and myself presented all the rough drafted material we had to the chefs, Kelly, Brenda and (lucky us) the Executive Director of Rockridge, Beth. Included was a budget and list of all plants we were thinking of growing, little information blurbs about each species and the guidebook. It was wonderful to see the enthusiasm and excitement on everyones’ faces when they looked at the work we have done. One Chef, Will, took a look at the amount of plants we were thinking of growing and point blank questioned,  “you’re gonna grow all this?”  we replied, ” yes, yes we are.”

I: Our biggest challenge seems to be balancing expanding and growing more things, while assuring that everything we create is manageable.  Olivia and I will be interning through the spring semester, and we each plan on devoting enough time to take care of anything we create during 2014. We also are creating an informational guide for the community to reference in order to be informed about how to take care of their gardens. The goal is to establish a system that is productive but also low maintenance, consists of plants that are useful to the kitchen, and is set up to succeed. What that means to all of us involved is that when Olivia and I move on to other projects, whoever follows us (ideally more interns from GCC and possibly also the five colleges) have infrastructure in place to work from in order to keep a functional system operating. Rockridge hopes to make strong connections with the agricultural departments with the surrounding schools in order to have consistent internships to manage their gardens.

O: Our breakthrough at the meeting and the most exciting news is that we are approved to expand the garden, that means we can grow more! We now have two more sites in which to work with. One site specifically that Ian and I are psyched to work with is a small triangle where we are thinking of planting a Three Sisters garden of beans, corn and squash. The three women in attendance at the meeting were beyond joyous at this idea. Next steps for this project is designing the expanded area, finalizing where we are going to get seeds and proposing a final budget. Lets get working!!!!!!! Happy January!photo