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Summer 2017 The Farm at Stonehill Volunteer

Guest Post: Celia Sees

Six of the Farm helpers gather at one end of the picnic table and use freshly harvested veggies to put together a meal

This summer, we were lucky to have (from left to right) Melissa Mardo (2017), Michelle David (2017), Jackie Lerner (2019), Gianna Desrochers (2019), Alex Pica (2018) and Celia Dolan (2019) on our summer farmer crew – quite the dream team!  For the next few weeks, we will give you and inside peek into what these summer farmers experience working at The Farm through guest posts. 

We will begin with Celia Dolan (2019) who has been an essential member of our team for two growing seasons!

 

One of the Farm crew members enjoys a plate of veggies at sunset on the Farm
Celia and the crew enjoyed a delicious veggie feast together at The Farm in July.

 

 

“Farming is in your blood,” he said.

 

I nodded my head in agreement with Jay McHugh, my distant cousin, whose pig farm I went to visit last weekend.  Well, I’m not sure that it can be called a pig farm considering pigs no longer live there.  In fact, it is hardly even a farm.  Weeds have taken over, the barns have dilapidated, and equipment has rusted.  For decades, miserly developers tried to buy the land from Jay and his father; a few times they stooped low enough to attempt to burn them out.  After putting up such a big fight, it seems a shame to sell the land.  Yet, that is what Jay decided to do.  And it does not take much imagination to wonder why.

Three people sit in the back of the truck among stacked baskets of wrapped up veggies, ready for delivery on a rainy day
Celia (on the right) helps Jackie and Gianna load up the truck for a delivery to one of our community partners in mid-May.

 

The farmer who once worked the land seems to have fallen apart alongside his fields.  He is tired, needs knee replacements, and is anxious to move off his family farm.  While we talked, he recalled times when his neighbors called to complain about his livestock grazing.  In his area, there is little support of local farmers or open land.  People push for progress, with money and bulldozers to do the pushing for them.

 

As I gazed at the drooping pasture gates and thriving weeds, I was reminded of how nature dictates our actions and how we are so closely tied to the land.  However, I would never have recognized such a connection if I did not recently start working on a farm myself.  In fact, I probably never would have visited my cousin’s pig farm in the first place.

Seven people gather on each side of a bed of stringy plants as the sun sets on the Farm
Celia (in red) volunteers on a regular basis throughout the school year and took an IDEAS class about our food system taught by Jeremy and Mark (both members of the Class of 2017).

Last summer, I volunteered at the Farm at Stonehill often enough to apply for a full-time position working there this summer.  I loved it last summer and I have continued to love it this season.  It seems that each day I learn something new at the farm.

 

We’ve eradicated potato beetles with the organic finger-pinching method.  We’ve discussed blossom-end rot on tomatoes, types of mildew that attack plants, how to store seeds – we were even lucky enough to have a crash-course in rototiller tractor driving (though we have not actually done and driving or tilling)!

A hand shows off three bright red tomatoes harvested from hoophouse 2
Beautiful tomatoes from Hoophouse 2 – definitely worth the effort!

We learned about which battles you should choose to fight.  Do you make a third attempt to grow produce in a hydroponic garden?  Do you pull up weeds in an area that will soon be tilled, or simply till them under?  Do you grow tomatoes next season when tomato blight seems to have a strong hold in the soil?  Often, it seems there are no right or wrong answers.  Rather, Bridget demonstrates how we take signs from the farm.  She once said that unlike people, plants don’t tell you what they need.  While this is true, I have learned that plants communicate in other ways.

A red basket filled with loads of harvested green beans picked by Camp Shriver campers
Green Beans picked with Camp Shriver campers.

They show us when they are thirsty, or hungry for nutrients.  The plants communicate with each other, helping each other grow as the Three Sisters – beans, corn, squash – do.  Or they try to tear each other apart, as weeds compete for nutrients, sun, and water.  In this way, plants are not very different than people; they know what they want and they aren’t afraid to show it.  When they do show it, we farmers act accordingly.  We work for and with the plants.

 

We also work for and with each other.  As a result, we have also learned a lot about human connections.  Each farmer has asked questions, made suggestions, or offered ideas about the farm and how it operates.  We divide up tasks and have our go-to harvest crops.  For example, I usually meander through the summer squash rows, while Michelle proclaims that she is going to zucchini land and Alex peeks under prickly leaves to find cucumbers.  Gianna gathers hundreds of cherry tomatoes and Jackie searches for eggplant.  We share our knowledge with each other.  If one of us notices something, like a new bug or suspicious mildew on a plant, we ask Bridget.

A line of young Camp Shriver campers work with the Farm managers to plant sunflower seedlings in a dirt bed
Some of the Camp Shriver campers who Celia and our crew welcomed a number of times this summer. Pictured here planting sunflower seedlings they planted from seed 4 weeks earlier.

Our learning extends beyond the work day, as well.  Bridget shares farm newsletters and emails that she receives from other local farmers.  She helps us stay active, leading barre class every week.  We’ve cooked and shared food with each other using fresh veggies from the farm.  With all that we do, we see our hard work come full circle.  From seeding, to transplanting, to harvesting to cooking, we have helped plants grow, and we have also grown alongside each other throughout the season.  Walking through the farm and connecting with nature, I feel completely satisfied with our hard work.

 

Knowing what a healthy farm looks like made the dereliction of my cousin’s farm even more painful.  I found myself teary-eyed over losing a farm that was never mine to begin with.  I imagined what it must have been, could see what it looked like now, and feared what it would look like in a year.  Pristine and identical houses would stand where pigs once roamed and where nettles grew now.

 

I wondered how someone could so easily give up on a farm that he had worked hard on his entire life.  Working at the farm with Bridget and the other summer interns taught me so many valuable lessons that I could not learn anywhere else.  I cannot thank her enough for sharing that with us and I would not trade a day that I have worked there for anything else.

A colorful seasonal bouquet colored with pinks, reds, purples, and yellows contrasts against the gray gravel path
It’s always fun to visit the farm – or take some home with you (ex. seasonal bouquets and honey).

So, if you have yet to visit the Farm at Stonehill, I highly recommend stopping by.  Who knows what you might learn!

~Celia Dolan,  Summer Farmer Extraordinaire!

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Community Community Partners Greenhouse Guest Post Our Vision The Farm at Stonehill Winter 2014

Winter Research: From the Lab to the Field

From the Lab to The Field: Cold-Tolerance Gene Research at the Farm

Guest post by, Danielle Garceau, Class of 2015

photo of Cold-hardy crops ready for winter in the hoop house
Cold-hardy crops ready for winter in the hoop house.

Even during the quieter, less hectic winter months, there is still a surprising amount of activity at the farm. From Mesclun mix and other cold weather crops like Spinach growing along in the hoop house, to students learning in their outdoor classroom, the farm is still a happening place.

But what else might be going on? Yes, research! As the temperature begins to drop the farm is the ideal location for an ongoing study that I am conducting with Professor Irvin Pan of the Biology Department with the support of the Farm. Through this research, we are hoping to determine the underlying genetic basis for cold-tolerance in crop species known to be cold-hardy.

Funded by the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB) Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship and the Stonehill Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) Program, this project is a continuation of research conducted this past growing season that will shift from the lab to the farm this winter. We are collecting and analyzing field data to better understand how certain tasty plant species can survive in outdoor winter weather environments.

Over this past summer, our group identified the cold tolerance genes Inducer of CBF Expression 1 (ICE1), C-Repeat Binding Factor 3 (CBF3), and Eskimo 1 (ESK1) in known cold-hardy crops such as Broccoli, Bok-Choi, and Kale alongside the model plant species Arabidopsis thaliana. We conducted an experiment to compare the expression of the cold-tolerance gene CBF3 in plants incubated at warm and cold temperatures.

This figure represents the changes in CBF3 levels over a 2 hour time period. Red arrows indicate CBF3 levels before the cold exposure and blue arrows indicate CBF3 levels after the cold exposure with numbers below the bands representing expression level as compared to before the cold exposure.
Cold Exposure Experiment: Gel Electrophoresis:   This figure represents the changes in CBF3 levels over a 2 hour time period. Red arrows indicate CBF3 levels before the cold exposure and blue arrows indicate CBF3 levels after the cold exposure with numbers below the bands representing expression level as compared to before the cold exposure.

The picture above is one of many gel electrophoreses ran on the DNA (in this case, cDNA or complementary DNA that is made from mRNA or messenger RNA) of these crop species. The bands above are the actual DNA of a specific gene that we are studying. The brighter the band, the more DNA there is in the plant tissue, meaning the plant is turning on this specific gene. As you can see from this gel picture after a 2 hour long exposure to cold temperatures, the expression level of the cold-tolerance gene CBF3 underwent as much as a 15 fold increase! We think that this may be one reason why plants like Broccoli, Kale, and Bok-Choi don’t mind colder temperatures.

photo of Greenhouse Cold Exposure Experiment in the Greenhouse at Shield Science Center.
Greenhouse Cold Exposure Experiment in the Greenhouse at Shield Science Center.

Through conducting further cold exposure experiments this winter at the greenhouse we hope to confirm these results on a larger scale and over a longer time period of one month while also recording the temperatures that the plants experience every hour using a temperature data logger.

photo of The new cold frame at The Farm.
The new cold frame at The Farm.

In addition to our work in the heated greenhouse this winter, we hope to also grow our cold-hardy plants in the newly built cold frame. Using the cold frame will allow us to gather data in a setting in which not only farmers but home gardeners could grow crops during the colder months of the year. This cold frame will also prove to be a useful learning tool in sustainable agriculture practices to students that use the farm as an outdoor classroom and engage in classes like Sustainable Agriculture – taught by Farm Manager Meigs.

In conducting this research at the farm we hope to ultimately extend the farm’s growing season further into the winter through the selection of crops most suited to colder temperatures. Through extending the farm’s growing season we also hope to enable the farm to provide fresh produce to community partners well into the winter season.