Something is happening in North Amherst, MA…
We know the U.S. food system is changing fast in response to consumer demand for fresh and healthy local food. Western Massachusetts particularly is among the national leaders in direct farmer to consumer sales, estimated at being 10 times higher in our region compared with the national average. The food conscious and progressive nature of the area means that we are blessed with local farms, farmers markets, food cooperatives, and neighborhood farm stands. In fact, the Food Solutions New England vision called “50 by 60” …. is to grow 50% of our food in New England by 2060!
And if that happens, North Amherst will likely be among the leaders of the local food movement – thanks to the creativity of one of our local farms and the surrounding community which is busily inventing a more sustainable agriculture right here in our own backyard!
That’s right…. Simple Gifts Farm in North Amherst, MA is a unique experiment in how to farm in a way that is respectful of the land, of animals, the farm families and the community in which all of this resides. Driving by the farm it may not be evident, but stop in at the new Farm Stand at 1089 North Pleasant St… wander about the farm… ask questions…. and observe! Unlike many, this farm welcomes neighbors and visitors to walk the farm, enjoy the scenery and learn about sustainable farming.
During your visit you will see a farm where the animals are healthy and happy, the land is worked with real care, and the buildings and machines are increasingly powered by green energy. The human powered weeder is an example of one of the experiments on how to farm in a post-carbon world!
This North Amherst experiment in sustainable agriculture supports an organic community farm, a wildlife corridor, and a place for local residents to enjoy nature and walking trails. The farmers are committed to community education and host workshops on topics from raising backyard chickens to farm ecology and learning how to “eat the weeds”. The farm itself is managed as an ecological unit, integrating vegetable crops and livestock, and connecting community members with their food supply. And Simple Gifts is committed to training the next generation of organic farmers through an apprenticeship program which provides housing in a home that has been occupied by farmers and farm families for 185 years.
But that is not all! As the price of land in communities like Amherst make farming increasingly prohibitive, even the ownership of the farm land is a unique public-private partnership. You see the land on which Simple Gifts farms is owned by the local community. Our non-profit foundation, the North Amherst Community Farm (NACF), has purchased the land with widespread community support and created a long term lease arrangement with the farmers of Simple Gifts. This land will be preserved for community farming forever!
Is anyone really surprised that all of this is happening in North Amherst. Well, no one should be….. as North Amherst has a tradition of constant creativity and change!
Looking back to the early days of farming in the Pioneer Valley, we find North Amherst farms among the first to transition from grain and livestock subsistence living to what was called at the time “scientific farming” in the middle of the 19th century. In fact, it was partly Amherst and Hadley farmers who led the way toward the establishment of the Massachusetts Agricultural College (Mass Aggie) as an immediate neighbor of the North Amherst farms.
Scientific farming was promoted by progressive agricultural societies of the day, informed by the latest research coming from Europe, and tested on farms in the Pioneer Valley. New techniques were designed to improve the lives of farm families with new crops, new livestock breeds and cultivation techniques, and modern ways of enriching the soil. Encouraged by the first farm instructor at Mass Aggie, Levi Stockbridge (a local farmer himself), Amherst and Hadley farms would lead the change from grain and livestock farms to market-oriented vegetable and dairy farms serving the community.
Among the leaders of the scientific farming movement was Edwin Harris Dickinson, a
1888 graduate of the Massachusetts Agricultural College. Edwin married Nellie Graves Cowles four years after graduating and came to reside at what is known as the Ingram-Dickinson House at 1089 North Pleasant St., the current home of the North Amherst Community Farm and Simple Gifts.
The Dickinson farm on North Pleasant seems to have been successful as the new family made several improvements in their new home, adding a Colonial Revival style front porch with Roman columns flanking the stairs to the traditional Greek Revival farmstead pictured below.
Scientific farming and a transition to a market-orientation was spurred by the opening of the Boston & Albany Railroad, providing Pioneer Valley farmers with access to markets in Boston and New York City. Farming in Amherst during this period was viewed as a noble calling, requiring intelligence and creativity, and attracting “professional gentlemen”. Referring to Amherst farmers, the President of the Massachusetts Senate, Marshall P. Wilder, said:
“It is particularly cheering to all who have at heart the advancement of agriculture, to witness the large number of professional gentlemen, for which Amherst is so celebrated, coming forward, with a helping hand, and cooperating with the intelligent farmers of Hampshire county, on behalf of an institution for the promotion of that most important and useful pursuit, the culture of Mother Earth.”
Surely Edwin Dickinson would have been considered among these “professional gentlemen” coming from one of the leading families in town. Dickinson would have learned all of the latest in scientific farming techniques during his time at Mass Aggie and likely maintained a close working relationship with the faculty of the college less than one mile down the street.
The legacy of this fine North Amherst farm is now in the hands of new farmers, Jeremy Barker-Plotkin and David Tepfer. And thanks to the efforts of the North Amherst Community Farm, this land which has been farmed for centuries will be continued as a community asset for years to come.
The North Amherst Community Farm is a small, local, not-for-profit organization devoted to preserving farmland and promoting sustainable farming practices in our community. The capital campaign we completed in 2016 will preserve the 30+ acre farm property in North Amherst, MA owned by NACF and leased to Simple Gifts Farm