Beyond Books: GCC Interns Learn By Doing

September 10, 2015

How does a farmer make sure she has enough fresh vegetables from an 8-acre farm for a weekly Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) distribution or that he meets his productivity goals on his 2,000 acre midwestern corn and soybean farm?

Ask GCC Farm and Food Systems (FFS) student Rachael Pride about CSA quotas and she’ll explain the time management and hard work it takes to produce, harvest, wash, and count those vegetables. She learned what it takes first-hand as an intern working alongside Farm Manager Aaron Drysdale at Just Roots’ Greenfield Community Farm.

Ask GCC FFS graduate Jon Shina about midwestern commodity crop farms and he’ll tell you about talking with farmers who work on such farms when his GCC internship took him to the National Farmers Union annual convention in Minnesota. From conversations about those farmers’ lives, Jon’s understanding of food systems moved beyond what he’d learned from books.

Rachael, Jon, and other GCC students use internships arranged by the Sustainable Agriculture and Green Energy Education Center (SAGE) at GCC to get hands-on experience in the world of agriculture and green energy.

Neither Rachael or Jon planned to study about food and farms, but for each, GCC’s FFS program and their internships started them on a new path.

Rachael, 30, a single mother living in Hinsdale, NH, started at GCC studying nursing. Then, she chose an elective course on Mushroom Cultivation. Rachael said, “My whole world was turned upside down, I developed a fascination with mushrooms, met Farm and Food Systems students, and started learned about food policy and farming. A light bulb went off, reading and talking with other students opened doors to understanding the intricacy of the food web. Something ignited inside me and I changed my focus from nursing to Farm and Food Systems.”

Rachael currently works as an intern on Rabbi Ben Weiner’s 3-acre homestead, learning the diverse skills needed to provide for a family from the land. She also served as Teaching Assistant for a Food Preservation and Storage class offered by the grant-funded NELCWIT GARDEN Project and saw how the Project helps members of our community move past hardships to empowerment and self-reliance.

Jon, 33, from Greenfield, graduated this summer with an Associate in Arts in Liberal Arts with a focus on Farm and Food Systems and works in the Produce Department at Green Fields Market. Jon grew up in the Boston area and lived in New York City where he started and worked in a moving company. In 2012, Jon’s partner, Shannon Dry, heard about GCC’s Farm and Food Systems program and decided to study at GCC. Jon had spent two years at the University of Massachusetts studying communications but didn’t finish a degree.

Talking with Shannon after she came home from FFS classes, Jon was intrigued. Through Shannon, he found a GCC internship working with former FFS Coordinator Abrah Dresdale and Greenhouse and Lab Technician Tony Reiber on GCC’s permaculture garden. Jon helped plant, water, and harvest. That crash course in gardening and permaculture led him to enroll in the FFS program.

Jon completed two other GCC internships, including working with Regenerative Design Group’s Keith Zaltzberg designing and building a bioshelter for Nancee Bershof and her Froggy Pond Farm. A bioshelter is a solar greenhouse managed as an ecosystem and part of Jon’s work was to design the fish pond in the bioshelter. For his third internship, Jon was chosen by New England Farmers Union and Franklin Community Co-op to attend the 2015 National Farmers Union Convention in Minneapolis. Jon wrote a blog and gave a presentation at GCC about the convention.

Jon said, “I was a guy from the city learning about food systems, including large-scale conventional agriculture in the midwest. I’d read about it, but I’d never seen it or met anyone involved in it. In Minnesota, I met people who owned and worked on those farms and heard their point of view, their concern for productivity. I don’t agree with their use of pesticides and fertilizers, but meeting those farmers helped me better understand the complexity of their work and the reasons they choose to use them.”

Christine Copeland, SAGE Assistant and Internship Coordinator at GCC, said, “Internships could not happen without the deep commitment of the faculty and the institution to our students and to our community partners. Internships require so much extra time of faculty with already full plates – to write up contracts, meet with their student intern, talk to businesses, navigate the grant funding, etc. Why do it? Because they see the enormous benefit it brings to students for their academic trajectory and their whole life.”

What’s next for Rachael and Jon? Rachael will complete her Associate degree in December and will enroll in the spring at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Rachael’s long-term plan is to create a sustainable permaculture farm on her five acres and share her learnings about the importance of community and connection with nature.

Jon enjoys working at Green Fields Market and tending his community garden plot and porch container garden. This fall, Jon will speak to GCC students about his experience with internships and work with GCC interns at Green Fields Market creating a new farmers market. He is considering studying at UMASS toward a self-designed bachelor’s degree combining communications and Farm and Food Systems.

To learn more about Farm and Food Systems internships, contact Coordinator Amy-Louise Pfeffer at PfefferA@gcc.mass.edu or 413-775-1489.

By Mary McClintock, ’82

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