UMass Stockbridge School, Wildwood embark on grow local partnership



Last modified: Tuesday, November 27, 2012

AMHERST — Wildwood School kindergarteners and Principal Nick Yaffe, sat in a circle Thursday around a hole in the ground where an apple tree was about to be planted.

Ryan Harb, coordinator of the permaculture program at the University of Massachusetts, who carted in two semidwarf apple trees, asked the children if they had ever eaten apples. Every hand shot up.

“The reason we came here and want to plant this apple tree is that we’re really passionate about growing food, so we wanted to give you an opportunity to grow some food with us,” he explained.

They shook out the dirt from the sod that Harb and his colleague, Tripper O’Mara, had dug up. One child found a large worm, and as his classmates gathered around to look at it, Harb explained that the worm had to go back in the hole to help break down organic matter in the soil.

The two trees, one a Macintosh and the other a Yellow Delicious, were planted 30 feet from each other on the green space between the school building and Strong Street. This is to be the site of a permaculture garden next year.

Thursday’s planting was the inauguration of a partnership between the Amherst public schools and the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at UMass.

Today, Harb and O’Mara are bringing apple trees to plant at Amherst’s two other elementary schools. This winter, they plan to help the schools design their gardens, which will be planted in the spring.

The ultimate goal is to have the schools grow some of the food that is served in their cafeterias, Harb said. A good model is Leverett Elementary School, where parents have constructed a garden and greenhouse, and each class grows different crops in designated beds and the project is integrated into the curriculum, he said.

“It’s like planting a seed,” Harb said. “We want to start a conversation about what we can do with all the land we have available at schools and in front yards, and whether we could grow food there. It could be something the community will enjoy doing.”

Harb supervises a quarter-acre garden outside Franklin Dining Commons at UMass, and it grows over 1,000 pounds of food a year to serve to students. The program won national recognition this year, including a trip to the White House in March, and about 50 other campuses have contacted him about starting their own permaculture gardens, he said.

He received a grant from UMass to extend his work beyond the campus, and proposed starting school gardens in a meeting with Superintendent Maria Geryk, who supported the idea.

Meg Rosa is a Wildwood parent who is on a committee planning the school’s garden. She said many families have said they’re willing to help weed and water the garden during the summer when school is not in session.

“It’s great to get kids out here and involved,” she said. “They will learn to enjoy food they grow and will learn about new foods they wouldn’t ordinarily be exposed to. We’ll start something from seed and see where it goes.”

Wildwood School has children from all over the world, and one option is to use the garden to embrace multiculturalism by planting crops that are popular in their countries of origin, said parent Vivian Liu.

Yaffe said he isn’t sure how viable it is to produce food for the cafeteria, but it would be fun for the children to eat food from the garden.

“This will connect kids to nature,” he said. “Kids will be able to understand where food comes from and how to take care of the earth. Amherst has a strong tradition of farming, and we can connect the garden to the curriculum, science in particular.”

Next winter, Harb and O’Mara will help the schools decide what crops to plant, how big the gardens should be, and how to get water to them. They’ll talk about whether the apple trees can be grown organically, whether to start compost systems, how to get the food into the cafeteria, and what to integrate into the classrooms.

“It seems like a lot of people are really excited about this, and its success will depend on how many people get behind it,” Harb said. “It could be something that grows, just like a garden.”

Poirot said.

WMECO is also lining up more tree crews to help the company deal with downed limbs that could cause significant damage to the company’s distribution system.

“There are a lot of things to think about here as we watch the forecasts, and we’re watching them closely,” Poirot said.

So too are officials at National Grid, which serves Northampton, Belchertown and Granby. The company is also reaching out to contractors from as far away as California. Those workers are on standby and if the forecast holds steady, they will be called in before the storm arrives, said spokeswoman Charlotte McCormack.

“It’s all really based on the forecast but we’re not going to take any risks in view of what happened last year,” she said, referring to the 2011 Halloween snowstorm that hit the region one year ago and left thousands without power for days.

Meantime, officials at the American Red Cross Pioneer Valley Chapter were spending Thursday night lining up volunteers, checking supplies and making sure agreements are in place with communities should shelters need to be opened.

“We’re taking it seriously, that’s for sure,” said Mary Nathan, regional response manager of the American Red Cross Central and Western Massachusetts. “When a storm gives us notice it makes it much easier on us.”

Nathan said the Red Cross has 250 volunteers in the Valley, but can tap into the organization’s national network of volunteers, if needed.

Each community is also going through its preparation checklist, from updating contact lists to ensuring adequate staffing, testing generators, arranging for shelters and making other precautions, said Larry Holmberg, emergency management director for the towns of Goshen and Chesterfield.

“Communities right now are planning for the worst and hoping for the best,” said Holmberg, who is also a member of the Hampshire Regional Emergency Planning Committee. “The trouble is we don’t know what to expect. We have multiple storm track possibilities right now.”

Officials at WMECO and National Grid hope that procedures implemented based on lessons they learned from the Halloween storm last year will lead to quicker restoration and better communication this time around.

“We know we didn’t live up to customers’ expectations last year,” McCormack said. “We know we need to do better.”

To that end, National Grid said it has invested “tens of millions of dollars” in strengthening its New England electric distribution infrastructure in the last year.

National Grid and WMECO will also put new liaison programs to the test next week. The utilities have trained liaisons who will be assigned to communities across the state.

Both utilities have put in place enhanced communication, from stepping up the use of social media to installing web-based tools for improved two-way communication with customers.

Additionally, National Grid has launched a new text message and e-mail alert system. The free service will enable customers to receive texts and updates. To sign up, test the word STORM to NGRID (64743).






 


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