Teens spend summer learning to farm, fix, and feed others
Photographs by Christina Rahr Lane
The distinct snap of garlic scapes being harvested from unearthed bulbs, coupled with their pungent aroma, are enough to leave an indelible impression of summer on the senses. In a field historically farmed by Shakers, a farm crew of 12 hand-picked Pittsfield teenagers works filling five-gallon buckets with the verdant, curly delicacy.
“A flower takes up more energy and nutrients than the actual bulb,” explains 16-year-old Joanndra Loftus, a Taconic High School student. “When you snap off the scape, the energy goes to the head of garlic and helps it to grow larger.”
Experiential learning such as this is what led to Roots Rising, a collaboration between the Alchemy Initiative and the Berkshire Botanical Garden, and a unique partnership aimed at engaging local teens in their communities through meaningful work.
Jamie Samowitz and Jessica Vecchia, co-directors of Roots Rising, launched the food- and agriculture-based, youth-development program that puts teens to work on farms, in community kitchens, and in local food pantries while providing them with essential life skills.
“After two years of planning, seeing the program in action is so surreal,” says Vecchia whose shared belief in the transformational capacity of meaningful work was a driving force behind the project’s inception. The pair received close to 80 applications for 12 coveted spots in the fully paid summer-work program that promises teens the opportunity to discover where their food comes from; connect with the natural world; and support their local community in producing and providing fresh, healthy food.
Matching green T-shirts and baseball caps serve to bind a seemingly disparate group of teenagers together. “We wanted the work crew to reflect the diversity of Pittsfield,” Samowitzsays, noting the diversity is economic, ethnic, and academic. Each applicant underwent a complete employment process—from submitting an application, to sitting through an interview, to providing a reference—a novel experience for most.
“I feel like we’re getting paid to have fun,” says Julianna Martinez, a rising junior at Pittsfield High School, her hands dirty and full of scapes. “I used to think that scallions and garlic were the same,” another teen remarks. Over the course of the five-week summer program, participants will spend time at Holiday Brook Farm, Brattle Farm, Abode Farm, Berkshire Dream Center, Shire City Kitchen, Berkshire Earth Regenerators, and others.
“We’re really excited about this collaboration,” says farmer Sarah Steadman who, along with Evan Thaylor-Null, has been farming 15 acres at Abode Farm in New Lebanon for the past six years. The pair will work with the Roots Rising farm crew for five consecutive Thursdays throughout the summer. At lunch, Steadman and Thaylor-Null assemble a communal salad that reflects the color, texture, and diversity of the group who harvested it. There is romaine and red butterhead lettuce, tender pea shoots, Hakurei turnips, radishes, and scallions. Bright-orange nasturtium flowers, thyme leaves with purple flowers intact, and slender chives are added as edible garnish. Six-minute eggs, fresh from the flock of 79 Red Sex Link chickens milling about the compost heap, add protein.
Jaclyn Boateng, a 16-year-old student at Taconic High School, is skeptical of the salad as a meal. The native of Ghana came to Pittsfield four years ago “to get a good education and to be with my dad,” she says. “I like making my own food from scratch, but I’m more accustomed to stew with rice, chicken, and goat.”
Julianna is more adventurous, after discovering purslane and lamb’s quarters earlier in the week, and she has been using her new knowledge to cook for her family. “We weed the cabbages and it’s everywhere,” says Landon Groat, of the edible weeds they’ve been identifying. “I’m getting dirty and loving nature,” says the 17-year-old Pittsfield High School student.
During spring-planting season in South County, a small, dedicated group of Greenagers installed 40 raised-bed, organic gardens—a record number for the organization—at various homes and community locations. Greenagers, founded in 2007 by nonprofit Front Lawn Food, provides employment and volunteer opportunities for teens and young adults in the fields of conservation, sustainable farming, and environmental leadership. Aretha Whitehead, Front Lawn Food coordinator, says kids learn about farming, and families reap the benefits of their work.
A variety of sustainable crops have taken root across the southern Berkshires over the past three years. Four raised beds behind the First Congregational Church in Stockbridge are laden with early crops of lettuce and sugar snap peas, hearty rainbow chard and kale, fava and bush beans, hot peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, crookneck yellow squash, and heirloom tomatoes.
One bed, aptly named “Little Eden” by a five-year-old parishioner, was planted with seed potatoes during Sunday school in late May. Bounty from three of the beds will go to the People’s Pantry in Great Barrington as part of its food distribution on Thursday mornings from the ground level of Saint James Place.
“The biggest revelation I’ve had is that we are actually making a difference with bridging the food gap,” says Whitehead after a year in her current position. Front Lawn Food’s Donor Garden program allowed for expanded growing opportunities for income-eligible families for whom organic food feels out of reach. “We are able to break barriers with regard to social and economic inequalities,” she says.
Back in New Lebanon, the Roots Rising crew’s departure from the field is marked by an impromptu lesson in old-school herbalism when Samowitz stops to demonstrate a spit-poultice made out of plantain leaves, a natural remedy for stinging nettle or other skin irritations.
“Food is more than something we eat,” says Vecchia. “It transcends language and culture, age and religion, economics and ability. It tells our story, our history; it fuels us, it heals us. In one way, it connects us as we all need to eat. In other ways, it divides us as not everyone has access to healthy food or knows how to prepare it. Food is powerful. We hope to help level the playing field. We see food as a tool to educate, to empower, and to build community.”