Learning the actual ropes: Smith Voc welcomes arboricultural students from five trade schools to field day at Look Park


Staff Writer

Published: 04-13-2023 5:15 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Now this is the way to spend a school day.

As she prepared to climb a tree in Look Park Thursday morning as part of an arbor skills competition, Violet Geoffrion donned a positioning saddle and protective helmet and clipped herself to a rope extending 30 feet in the air.

“I’m not nervous, but I know I’m going to get tired about half of the way through,” Geoffrion said. “I’m trying to convince myself to not stop and take a breath. That’s how you slow down and want to give up.”

When she received the signal to go, the Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School starting climbing as fast as she could to ring a bell about 30 feet up the tree. Her time would then be compared against several other students her age to see who was the fastest.

The experience was part of an annual Arbor Skills Career Development Event, a program sponsored by the Future Farmers of America. Smith Vocational welcomed horticultural and arboricultural students from five other Massachusetts trade schools to Look Park for the program.

The event featured about 100 students testing their knowledge on a wide variety of skills required of any aspiring arborist, such as knot tying, tree identification and climbing speed. Students competed with each other to achieve the best times while still factoring in safety measures.

“The biggest thing would be making sure that they know how to be safely attached or secured to something,” said Rudy Marek, an arborist at Northern Tree Services in Palmer, a sponsor of the event. “Whether it’s a crane ball or if they’re climbing a regular tree old school-style, we want to make sure that they’re as safe as possible.”

Although ranking first in the various competitions brings little more than bragging rights, many of the students are already able to begin professional work as arborists, getting experience in aspects of the field such as pruning or removing trees, planting new ones, and diagnosing the health of various tree species.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Graduating amid signs of protest: 6,800 UMass students receive diplomas at ceremony briefly interrupted by walk out
Fire at Rainbow Motel in Whately leaves 17 without a home
Scott Brown: Road to ruin for Northampton schools
Track & field: Holyoke girls 4x100 relay team wins WMass title, eyes historic trip to Nationals
Amherst’s Moriah Luetjen, Logan Alfandari each win 2 titles, Northampton girls dominate en route to team title at Western Mass. Division 1 Track & Field Championships (PHOTOS)
Summer on Strong kicks off Wednesday in Northampton

At Smith Vocational, students in their junior year who are academically eligible are able to work for a professional company, such as Northern Tree Services, rather than take a regular shop class.

“Every other week, students are going out, they’re working, and they get paid at least minimum wage for it,” said Mark Nevin, a horticulture and forestry teacher at the school. “A lot of times that leads to permanent employment in the industry. It really gives them that work experience a lot of companies are looking for when they go to hire people.”

Owen Abrams, 17, a student at Smith Vocational who attended both this year’s and last year’s arbor skills event, plans to pursue a career as an arborist once he finishes his education.

“I enjoy working with trees,” Abrams said. “We get to go around all over Massachusetts, wherever it’s needed, to take out hazard trees that can’t be done with traditional methods.”

Arboriculture has long been a male-dominated field. According to the most recent numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women only made up 7.2% of all arborists in the country.

But a look at the students participating in this year’s event shows signs of changing demographics. More than half of the students who participated at the Look Park event were female, bringing different approaches to some aspects of the job. In tree climbing for example, men may rely on upper-body strength to pull themselves up using the rope cord they attach themselves to. Women, on the other hand, rely more on lower-body strength, using their legs to grab the tree and push themselves upward.

“I like the hands-on work that comes with the job,” said Jalisa Simal, 17, who attends Bristol County Agricultural High School in Dighton, having made the trip with her classmates to Northampton for the event. “Our freshman year is getting to know different majors and getting experience in those majors, and this has definitely been more involved in working with chippers and chain saws.”

Gabriella Carvalho, 17, another student from the Bristol school, also said she felt drawn to the field.

“I kind of came in during my sophomore year and they gave me the option of going into arboriculture, so I chose that. And I’ve really enjoyed it ever since,” Carvalho said. “I like being outside. I like all the little details of tree identification.”

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.