New Agricultural Learning Center brings sustainable farming back to UMass

By Conor Snell

Alex Aritan/Collegian

Standing at a lectern on what was once her father’s land, Alice Wysocki, 88, reminded the crowd before her of what life was like for those who farmed in Amherst over half a century ago.

“Small-scale and subsistence farming didn’t always use to be something you just studied,” Wysocki said. “It was a very real way of life.”

Wysocki grew up on this 40-acre patch of land just north of the University of Massachusetts campus at 911 North Pleasant Street. She worked with her father – who tilled this land, which was grazed by animals, by hand – and siblings on a small subsistence farm to support the family.

She stayed with her family through her studies at the newly named University of Massachusetts, formerly the Massachusetts School of Agriculture. Wysocki graduated with the class of 1948 and left Amherst in 1950. After her father died, no one was left to manage the crops and livestock, which were slowly phased out. The fields were converted to hay, and the horse barn was emptied and closed up.

Now, thanks to a recent surge in student interest in UMass’s agricultural program – up to 80 students this year from just five in 2003 – the University’s Center for Agriculture and the Stockbridge School broke ground Thursday on a new Agricultural Learning Center. Here, students will get hands-on experience with growing crops, raising livestock and managing the land organically and sustainably. The center will utilize the entirety of the Wysocki farmland as well as parts of the neighboring Adams Dairy pastureland.

Wysocki, who holds a B.S. in chemistry from UMass and has years of experience in the medical field, said she was very excited for the experimental farming techniques she hopes students of the new center will undertake, including growing crops without the use of pesticides or chemical fertilizers and raising livestock without the use of antibiotics or hormones.

The Wysocki farm, which grew small-scale patches of onions, potatoes, tobacco and other plants, did not use pesticides on crops because they were “too expensive,” Wysocki said.

“The only pesticides we had were in hand-cranked sprayers, which could be exhausting to spray after a while,” Wysocki said. “We’d only use them in personal gardens, not on the crops.”

This type of labor was routine on the farm. Wysocki remembers how her responsibilities increased as she got older. As a small girl she would simply gather buckets of water. As she aged, she and her sisters began pulling onions and potatoes and cutting tobacco, in addition to maintaining [MNU1] the farmhouse.

“Eventually we got machines to take some of the load off, but even those were human-powered,” she said. “It wasn’t until we got a tractor that we could stop using the horses, and we let them just run free in the fields.”

The horse barn, built in 1894 and still standing, remains relatively unchanged, according to Wysocki. It will be moved onto the field and repurposed by the University into a 90-seat classroom. Steven Goodwin, dean of the College of Natural Sciences, said that some of the original horse stalls will be kept for heritage and the upper loft of the barn will become two teaching labs.

“It’s not just about what happens in the barn, though,” Goodwin said. “It’s really about what the students and professors are doing on the ground.

We want to make this place into a dynamic center for the hands-on study of agriculture,” Goodwin added.

UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy also spoke at the event, which was the first time he’d given opening words to “a good old barn-raising.” He mentioned the increased draw the center will have for prospective agricultural students.

“It’s important to develop knowledge for the future of our food supply and for the future of agriculture,” Subbaswamy said. He, along with Goodwin, Director of the Center for Agriculture Stephen Herbert and others, ceremonially broke ground to plant an apple tree, one of 150 planned for the site in recognition of the University’s sesquicentennial. Apple trees were the first crop planted on campus at the University’s founding in 1863.

A large portion of the cost of the center is coming from donations, including a $500,000 pledge from the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, paid over three years, and one $25,000 donation from an anonymous donor.

Wysocki is content with the way her family’s land is being repurposed for the benefit of the UMass agricultural program.

“I’m very pleased to be here today,” Wysocki said, “and see the way my father’s farm can be used for the good of the students.”

Conor Snell can be reached at [email protected]