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At Simple Gifts Farm, local food is a year-round affair

December 5, 2016

AMHERST — When she graduated from St. Michael’s College last year, Olivia Whittemore, 23, never thought she’d be hauling onions and building fences to keep cattle from roaming the neighborhood of North Amherst. But today she is an apprentice at the 31-acre Simple Gifts Farm, doing everything from building fences to working with cattle. 

“It was such a huge shift in gear for me,” said Whittemore. While some college graduates move back in with mom and dad after getting their diplomas, Whittemore settled into a farmhouse at the  organic farm.

“It’s a weird place in your life when you graduate college and having this whole new experience was helpful for me,” Whittemore said one afternoon last month, as she prepared to sell produce at the Amherst Farmer’s Market.

Whittemore is just one worker who lives at the farm, laboring nearly every day to grow organic produce for the Amherst community. Simple Gifts Farm is an unusual example of a farm that’s located within a settled neighborhood, across the street from Puffton Village and not far from the apartment complexes on Hobart Lane. For UMass students, it offers a chance to buy fresh produce and connect with the land. 

(Contributed Photo/Larry Kelley)

(Contributed Photo/Larry Kelley)

“The farm offers a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and it serves as a training ground for new farmers like Whittemore,” said farmer Jeremy Barker Plotkin, one of the two managers. Each semester, four or five students learn about farming at Simple Gifts. This is particularly important in Massachusetts, where the average farmers are 58-years-old, and there’s a need for younger workers.

As an apprentice, Whittemore does a little bit of everything, from feeding the pigs to driving the tractors, to watering seedlings. In addition, she works on fencing for rotational grazing of livestock.  At the end of a long day, which is usually about eight hours, she returns to the farmhouse, where she lives with the farm’s assistant managers.  

“We work really hard but it’s also really satisfying,” said Whittemore as she tossed a stick to Scout, a dog who lives at the farm.

Abigail Clarke, a 2014 University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate, has been working at the farm for three years where she began as a volunteer. Today she serves as harvest manager, making elaborate lists for what the farm will grow, how much they will grow and in what field they will grow it.

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Raspberry and black raspberry bushes during growing season.

Clarke likes working at Simple Gifts because she’s interested in local food systems and nutrition.

“Eating locally is so important,” said Clarke.

Unlike the grocery store, which is stocked with frozen produce trucked in from great distances, local farms offer whatever is in-season and feasible to grow in the area. Clarke enjoys teaching members of the farm’s Community Supported Agriculture program where their food comes from and which vegetables thrive in certain seasons.

“One big thing I love is teaching people when vegetables are actually available,” Clarke continued.

“A lot of people appreciate being able to come out to the farm,” Barker Plotkin said.

“Community members can get involved with Simple Gifts Farm through CSA farm shares. The farm shares provide an affordable and convenient option for community members seeking organic produce,” said Barker Plotkin.

After paying a one-time fee, CSA members visit the farm once a week to stuff a canvas bag with organic vegetables grown on-site. Visitors can select, from a spread of harvested produce, a combination of in-season vegetables to fill the half-bushel-size bag.

Unlike other CSA’s that only operate in the summer months, Simple Gifts Farm offers shares all year round. In the winter, high tunnels and low tunnels hoop houses protect the crops from frigid weather.

Over the past few years, Clarke has noticed an influx of UMass students, and she hopes to continue seeing student faces at the farm. “Eating locally has its benefits,” Clarke said. Aside from being nutritious, it is a good way to snag “a lot of affordable produce,” said Barker Plotkin.  

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Olivia Whittemore turns the water off in the cow and oxen enclosure.

Barker Plotkin has been working at Simple Gifts Farm since it opened in 2006. The land was formerly the Dziekanowski Farm. The North Amherst Community Farm (NACF) began leasing the land to Simple Gifts shortly after the farm was saved from development.

Whittemore relishes many aspects of working on the farm, from seeing little calves, to picking fresh parsley on a whim while cooking dinner. She encourages others to get involved at the farm and highly recommends working as a Simple Gifts apprentice.

“Being able to work with animals and to eat the food that I’m helping to produce — that’s really rewarding,” Whittemore said. 

Simple Gifts is easy to find, and accessible by PVTA bus. It’s located on North Pleasant Street in Amherst, just across from the entrance to Puffton Village. For more information, visit the Simple Gifts website.

Editor’s note: This story was initially published Nov. 30.

Email Nicole at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @nicole_defeudis.

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