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Food Connects’ School Harvest Farm Manager Jonah Mossberg shows off the school’s rototiller.

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New farm manager cultivates change

Food Connects’ School Harvest Farm makes agriculture a learning experience for students and the community

BRATTLEBORO—On a recent unseasonably warm, rainy day, Jonah Mossberg, who was hired last fall as the farm manager at Food Connects’ School Harvest Farm, offered a tour of the field, the buildings, and the spiffy equipment.

But the first stop was inside the offices of Food Connects, a nonprofit organization with a simple mission: “to cultivate healthy food and farm connections in classrooms, cafeterias, and communities in and around Windham County, Vermont.”

“I’m pretty excited about these,” he said, pointing to an array of seed packets, fanned across his desk, that had arrived that day.

Once the raindrops had slowed to a fine mist, Mossberg ventured outdoors to show off the farm’s field.

“This field has a history of agriculture,” he said.

The University of Vermont Extension was farming the two-acre parcel on the Famolare property until 2014. Food Connects took it over to continue it as an educational farm geared toward younger students.

Mossberg, whose position is new and grant-funded, is in charge of managing all aspects of vegetable production and running the educational side of the farm.

“It’s a lot for one person,” he said, noting the job is “enough work for five people.”

Mossberg said “this is a real growthful time” for Food Connects, and he said the organization “really wanted somebody to come in here and make s— happen.”

He is that person.

Mossberg has been involved in some form of gardening and farming for nearly his entire life.

“I kind of grew up in a blueberry patch” in northeastern Connecticut, near Willimantic, he said.

In addition to spending many years farming in New England, Mossberg also spent time on the West Coast, working with youth on urban farming at Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley, Calif.

For the educational-planning portion of the job, Mossberg will work with schoolteachers to develop lesson plans relating to science, mathematics, and other subjects.

“Some [teachers] want to just come and work” in the fields with their students, while others want to develop entire lesson plans around what they can do at the farm, Mossberg said.

“Anybody studying anything can come,” he said.

Last fall, the horticulture class at Windham Regional Career Center regularly visited, and this spring the landscape-design students, led by teacher Sam Rowley, will take part, Mossberg said.

Fruits (and vegetables) of their labor

“One of the coolest things about the program,” he said, is that the produce he and the students grow on the farm is sold to their school’s kitchens, so students can literally taste the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor.

“This year, we’re growing salad mix for the school,” he noted.

The schools are not the only customers, though.

Mossberg said Brattleboro Food Co-op Produce Manager John Truncale “wants onions, carrots, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, parsnips, scallions, garlic, and cilantro.”

“We can grow some things that others can’t that the school wants, such as sweet potatoes,” Mossberg said, noting “there’s not a lot of market” for them, so some local farms do not grow the tuber.

“Our farm is a little different,” he said.

Because most students will not be at the farm in the summer, when school is closed, “our plantings are more fall-focused.” Many of the crops will be cold-hardy crops that Mossberg said thrive in this climate.

There will also be flowers, Mossberg said, “because that’s fun for youth.”

Mossberg pointed out how close — just across the field and over a little rise — the School Harvest Farm is to Brattleboro’s middle and high schools. Unless they needed physical assistance, most students could just walk there.

The next stop was the greenhouse, where Mossberg showed off his new, shiny blue BCS professional-quality rototiller.

“This is what all the cool farmers use,” he said, explaining all the functions the rototiller can perform: it is a chipper, it can make mulch, and there are mower attachments.

But wait — that’s not all.

“We have access to the Career Center’s tractor and bucket loader,” he said — equipment essential for making compost. “In the fall, it’s used to turn the fields over,” he said.

Looking forward to no-till farming

“Even though we have the tiller and mower, what I’m really excited about is no-till farming,” Mossberg said, noting he wants to transition the farm to a low- to no-till system.

“It allows the soil structure to remain,” Mossberg said. In doing so, all the life — all the fungus and beneficial bacteria — can remain, undisturbed by tillage.

This system “doesn’t stir up weed seeds and promotes the soil’s ability to hold moisture,” he said, noting no-till “reduces water usage.”

“Even on a commercial scale, I’ve seen it be successful,” Mossberg said, noting his farming heroes, Anita Johnson and Bryan O’Hara of Tobacco Road Farm in Lebanon, Conn., inspired him to explore this method.

“We need to look at no-till farming as a viable option as the evolution of the species, and the lack of fuel and machines, comes to pass,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mossberg said, the soil at the farm “is pretty good” but, if he utilized no-till, “instead of tilling all the time, I’m mulching and feeding the soil all the time. It’s a different strategy.”

Another strategy Mossberg plans to integrate into the farm is a natural farming method used in Korea that utilizes indigenous microorganisms (IMO). He said the IMO system involves harvesting microbes from local forests, and using specialized compost piles.

And “the youth will do it all,” he said.

Hoop dreams

In the nearer future, Mossberg said, the farm will build a 100-foot hoop house. This grant-funded greenhouse will allow him to grow winter vegetables, including greens.

“People can’t get enough greens around here in the winter,” he said.

When it gets cold again next year, he will grow rye as a cover crop. “It holds the soil steady through winter,” Mossberg said.

Pointing out a small building painted red, Mossberg opened the door into the structure’s single room, about the size of a tiny bedroom. It had one air-conditioning unit sticking out the back and no windows.

“It’s our new cold storage,” Mossberg said, explaining that the space can keep carrots and beets at their optimal temperature.

Although a lot of Mossberg’s work involves schoolchildren and possibly some college interns, he said there are plenty of upcoming opportunities for everyone to “come and get their hands dirty.”

Growing community

This spring, Food Connects is offering free on-farm workshops for teachers, Marketing and Communications Coordinator Allyson Wendt told The Commons in an email.

In one workshop, “students can plant and taste greens,” and in another, “they can make and explore compost. Teachers should contact Jonah directly for more information about those,” Wendt wrote.

Other programs include a small community garden space, community work days, and what Mossberg describes as “a series of laid-back work parties and farm dinners” on the last Tuesday of the month, from June through September.

“A food truck will pull in and folks can come hang out, pull a few weeds if they want (we’d love the help), and purchase dinner from the truck. Each food truck will donate a portion of proceeds to Food Connects, so it’s a fundraiser for us,” Wendt wrote.

“There are many points of entry for people to come,” Mossberg said.

“We live in an agricultural community,” he said, “but a lot of people are disconnected from food and part of my job is to make that connection — to be like a pied piper out there.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #350 (Wednesday, March 30, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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