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.
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 Farm).
“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
“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
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
“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
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 and resignation.
“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 farms.”
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 shares.)
“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 group.”
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 third weekend.
$500/month stipend, housing, farm produce,
weekday lunches at farmhouse, full health insurance,
comprehensive knowledge on how to run an organic farm.
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 workshop.
Send a letter of intent and resume to Brookfield
Farms firstname.lastname@example.org, 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 successful.”
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
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.