August 31, 2004: To study the history of
Brookfield Farm on the outskirts of Amherst, Mass., is to
chart the course of the CSA movement itself. The third community
supported farm ever to be established in the U.S.—following
in the footsteps of two relative neighbors an hour’s
drive away to the west and northeast—the CSA struggled
economically from its mid-’80s beginning but thrives
today due to sound management and a renaissance among the
eating public for healthy, local food.
Under the ownership of the nonprofit Biodynamic Farmland Conservation
Trust since 1987, the farm’s mission to “create
and support responsible agriculture” is carried out in
no small part by educating new farmers through an intensive
apprenticeship program. The alumni roster of this total immersion
into small-scale farming reads like a Who’s Who of sustainable
agriculture: Don Zasada, director of agriculture for The
Food Project ; Jenny Hausman, CSA manager for Appleton
Farms; Paul Bucciaglia, owner of Fort
Hill Farm, to name a few.
"I think it’s common for apprentices to report being taken for granted…that
all they did was hoe all day. Here, apprentices
are given a significant amount of responsibility."
-- Assistant farm manager
So what makes this apprenticeship program so successful?
“I think responsibility is the key,” says Casey
Steinberg, assistant farm manager and veteran of the organic
farming apprenticeship circuit (including right here at Brookfield
“I’ve always felt valued and appreciated here,”
says Steinberg. “I think it’s common for apprentices
to report being taken for granted…that all they did
was hoe all day. Here, apprentices are given a significant
amount of responsibility.”
Illustrative of that philosophy is the farm’s tractor
policy. “Each apprentice is assigned a tractor, explains
Steinberg. “That tractor is theirs. They learn how to
take care of it, and any job that the tractor does is theirs.”
In a world where having trainees can be a liability as far
as maintenance costs, Steinberg says, one user per tractor
actually keeps those costs down.
“There’s a difference between being under worked
and your skills being underserved,” says Steinberg.
“If you’re only asked to do nominal tasks, you’re
not going to invest in the place.”
Other novel perks of Brookfield Farm’s apprenticeship
program, Steinberg says with just a hint of sarcasm, include
hot water and electricity.
A CSA is born
Brookfield Farm’s CSA began in 1986 with 55 member
households and 4 acres under production. Today, 25 vegetable-producing
acres fulfill 520 memberships at $400 each. Do the math, and
that’s just $218,000 to cover salaries, apprentice stipends
and all other operating costs.
“That’s it; that’s all there is,”
Steinberg says, fielding a question during a recent farm tour.
Well, not quite.
The first capital campaign in the farm’s history was
launched in June 2003 and raised $150,000 in just 6 months;
the money is being used to build a new barn and renovate existing
structures. The overwhelming success of the campaign speaks
to the less-tangible side benefits shareholders receive inside
each brimming box of vegetables or stroll into the popular
pick-your-own section of the farm.
“This farm provides health care for the community as well
as for the farmers,” says former Brookfield Farm apprentice
and one-time assistant manager Sue Wasseluk. “The CSA
model brings people out here to experience the farm; it’s
their farm, too.”
After apprenticing for two years and working as assistant
managing for another two, Wasseluk went back to college in
order to explore whether or not another career path was even
an option. “I conclusively determined, hell no,”
she says, her hardy laugh intoning a mixture of excitement
“To me, this work is tangible…It’s all
about how you want to spent your time and live. Do you put
in the hours to make money to buy things to support yourself,
or do you let the actual work be what supports you?”
Like many young people drawn to this type of farming, Wasseluk
speaks about the pull of sustainable agriculture in terms
of a deep calling or vocation.
“It’s not for everybody,” she concedes.
“In our modern condition, there are so many choices.
You don’t have to do this, and why would you want to,
unless you felt like you really needed this on some level?”
Wasseluk is part of a growing contingent of young farmers
brand new to agriculture who are discovering intrinsic value
in a bygone way of life even as it’s being largely rejected
by the sons and daughters of traditional farming families.
That she and her contemporaries are going against the tide
is not lost on her.
“I only hope there are enough newbies to keep the land
in production instead of being developed,” she says.
This fall, Wasseluk is headed to Italy with her backpack
to “stomp on some grapes” while touring small
farms there. “I just want to see how the things I like
to eat are grown,” she says. “That’s how
farmers go on vacation—they go work on other people’s
A model program
Word has gotten out that one of Brookfield Farm’s most
consistently successful crops is competent organic farmers.
Consequently, vying for the three spots for apprenticeships—which
run April 1 to Thanksgiving each year—has become more
competitive. (There’s also a long waiting list for farm
“Frequently, out of three places, only one comes up
in a year,” says Dan Kaplan, farm and apprenticeship
program manager since 1995. “Most stay for more than
one year, depending on how much experience they had before
they got here.
“Because of the size and focus of the farm, we tend to
be able to select people who are somewhat further down the road.
It’s not like we’re looking for all entry level—I
like to take maybe one. I think it’s kind of a self-selective
“If you don’t talk to me by November,
you usually don’t get hired. It’s
first come, first served.”
-- Dan Kaplan, farm manager
at a Glance
Farm: Amherst, Mass.
April 1 to the day before Thanksgiving (most apprentices
stay on more than one year; partial-season apprenticeships
Monday-Friday, 6 a.m.-5 p.m. (1-hour
breaks for breakfast and lunch). Saturdays until
noon. Rotating chores with other apprentices every
$500/month stipend, housing, farm produce,
weekday lunches at farmhouse, full health insurance,
comprehensive knowledge on how to run an organic
Other perks: All
apprentices encouraged to take part in CRAFT (Collaborative
Regional Alliance for Farmer Training) program.
In order to broaden their experience base, interns
from participating organic and biodynamic farms
in the Northeast gather at a different farm one
day every other week for a farm overview and topic-specific
Send a letter of intent and resume to Brookfield
Farms email@example.com, 24 Hulst Rd., Amherst,
MA 01002, C/O
Dan Kaplan. (One to three spots open up each year.)
For more information:
Kaplan’s advice for anyone wishing to turn in an application?
Do so early.
“If you don’t talk to me by November, you usually
don’t get hired. It’s first come, first served.”
What Brookfield Farm’s apprenticeship program is decidedly
not, says Kaplan, is a way to recruit cheap labor. Both farmer
and apprentice invest time into developing all the skills
necessary to become a farm manager, he says. This means skill
building across a wide range of tasks—from soil preparation
to harvest, tractor work to hand cultivating, administration
to marketing—and playing an active roll in the evolving
experiment that is the essence of organic farming, not just
developing a few skills efficiently as might be the approach
in a typical farmer/laborer relationship.
“You can’t learn to run a small farm in agriculture
school,” Kaplan says, visibly proud of the program he’s
spent nearly a decade fine-tuning. “We can pretty much
get people in and out in three years; many have become very
Like his right-hand man Casey Steinberg, Kaplan’s own
wide range of experiences as an apprentice, both good and
bad, have helped shape the farmer—and mentor—that
he is today.
“The big thing, I think, is the fact that I was an
apprentice; that’s how I learned how to be a farmer.
I like having apprentices, and it does play to my strengths.
In order to be a good teacher, you’ve got to be able
to deal with people and all their crazy crap.”
It also helps to have the support of a foundation firmly
committed to educating a new generation of ecology-minded
farmers, he says.
“Apprenticeships fit with this farm’s mission
as a nonprofit: to use the resources of the nonprofit to educate
people in all aspects of sustainable, biodynamic agriculture.
These apprenticeships are a great way to meet that mission.”
There’s one major drawback to such a successful program,
Kaplan says, well within earshot of his crew.
“I can’t get them to leave; they don’t
want to go…and that is a little bit of a problem. I
can’t give everybody a job.”
Dan Sullivan is senior editor at The New Farm.