Dearest friends of Book & Plow Farm,
If you look up the meaning of the word “extension”, you get quite a number of different definitions. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary page alone lists at least ten, from markings on a map to connections off of a primary telephone line, and from describing lengths of hair to the very joints in our bodies, bending and flexing where they meet. (If you know me, you’ll know I LOVE considering a word and its many meanings. So if you’re reading this newsletter and wondering, “Where are they going with this?” I invite you to stick it out with me.)
“Extension” is a word that showed up for me, first, when I was a student at Amherst College and worked with the 2015 summer internship crew. As we walked through the farm fields and scanned for summer insects that might be enjoying our crops, we referred to pages from the UMass Extension pest guide and made the sort of in-real-time connections the farm is well-known for fostering. In the Fall, we send field samples to UMass Extension to make informed decisions about the fertility of our growing soils, and to decide what nutrient supports might be needed as we seed new plants for the Spring. Now, seven seasons later, in my role as Farm Fellow at Book & Plow, I find myself thinking about the word “extension” a lot. In particular, as we greet the closing of the semester for students, the arrival (and passing) of Winter Solstice, and the long, cold, candle-brightened nights this Winter brings, I’m thinking about where our seasons of growing at the farm feel like they truly come to a close, and where our work and relationships can, and do, extend.
Last week, one of the farm managers, Kaylee, and I attended the New England Vegetable and Fruit Growers Conference in Manchester, NH, (just one of the many ways we, as farmers, stretch our work into the cold season) and it struck me how many farms in the northeast partner with local universities’ “Extension” programs in order to support the work they do on the farm, whether that’s pest management, soil fertility testing, or applied field research in topics like seasonal cover crop rotation or reduced tillage systems. These programs provide the sorts of tools, time, and resources that allow some farmers to extend harvest seasons well into the winter time, and (sometimes) keep food growing all year long. Woven into the term “season extension” is the idea that in some systems, it’s possible to build the kind of resiliency, people labor, and connections that make it possible - even while facing the ongoing, unpredictable, and real impacts of climate change - to hope for growth and life, even in the coldest and darkest days of the year.
While we, as Book & Plow staff, won’t be seeding in the propagation house until the arrival of slightly warmer days in Spring, we’re entering the next few months so grateful for all the work we’ve done this year, together with our incredible student farmers and community partners - across and outside of campus. For our small but mighty staff team of three, it's impossible to do all of the work we do without the collaboration of many, many other hands. If you were one of the hands that joined us on the farm this year, we thank you and say “come again!” While our in-field work has officially come to a pause, our relationship-building as a campus farm extends on into the spring semester. For all of us, this time is a highly-anticipated shift into a slower, perhaps more-reflective pace as we wait for the cycles we know to start up once again.
I’m often asked what it’s like for me to be back at Amherst College as a Staff member this year, after being a Student not too long ago. While I never had the specific and unique experience as a student of balancing my academic work with living through a global pandemic, I understand that there are always reasons (anticipated or not) students might choose to extend their time here. In my own journey, it took me a total of 6 years to finally complete my credits at Amherst, and through each of those years, Book & Plow Farm was a place I came to feel safe, celebrated, and connected to the work of growing food (which I love!)
For all students, there comes a moment of transition from student to alum. As I’ve watched some of our work study students approach their last days at Amherst this semester, it makes me a little nostalgic for my own experience of that moment: the sentimentality, the nerves, and also the feeling of relief in closing this chapter of our young adult lives. What I hope to express, whenever I am asked, is that working at the farm feels like a welcome and special opportunity to extend the relationship I started years ago. Working alongside students, I’ve cherished the role I get to play in facilitating a space where students can learn about themselves, each other, and the farm in meaningful ways. I’m so glad that, as an Alum, I get to shape a new and ever-growing relationship to this place, to these people, and to this land.
To our alums, recent and more seasoned, I hope you know that you are always welcome to reach out to us at the farm and keep in touch about what’s happening here and in your own lives! That understanding alone has made such a huge difference for me, and I know it does for others. Our farm is shaped and reshaped by everyone who chooses to be present with us. As time passes and seasons change, there remain so many ways to be connected to what we do here. We look forward to more seasons to come, and wish you all well until we see you next.
Take care and be well,
Ana Gabriela Ascencio
Book & Plow Farm Fellow