Growing for the Greater Good

Written by Jennifer H. McInerney | Photography by Jack Foley

Holly Hill Farm teaches teens the basics of sustainable agriculture—and the value of giving back.

On an unseasonably warm day in early February, with temperatures nudging 60 degrees, five student volunteers trudge through the muddy paths at Holly Hill Farm in Cohasset. They are each pushing a wheelbarrow full of brittle leaves down the mucky slope, which would typically be frozen, or at least hard-packed, this time of year. But there isn’t a complaint among these teens—jacketless and smiling in the sunshine. They are here for the Farm-to-Food Pantry Program (F2FP), one of Holly Hill Farm’s many educational programs, which has provided fresh organic produce to local food pantries for eight years.

Leading the pack, Jon Belber, the education director at the farm, parks his wheelbarrow next to a half-dozen compost piles and directs his young charges to set their burdens down for the moment. “We’ll come back for these in just a minute,” says Belber. “First, let’s take a look at how our composting is going.”

The students examine the status of the compost piles. Each has a miniature signpost sticking out from the top with the date that decomposition process began. While the newest mound contains recognizable vegetable peels and egg shells, the oldest pile appears like a simple pile of earth. Belber grabs a shovel and turns over a scoopful to show the kids the earthworms wriggling through the soil.

“This is a good sign,” he explains. “We’re making healthy fertilizer that we can use to help our plants grow.”

Considered Cohasset’s last working farm, Holly Hill Farm has been home to various forms of agriculture since the 17th century, cultivated by seven generations of the White family. Located on scenic Jerusalem Road, 120 of the farm’s 140 acres have been protected as conservation land since 1980.

In 2000, the White family formalized its commitment to sustainable farming practices and received an organic certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2002, the Friends of Holly Hill Farm was established to manage the farm and educate the public via outreach programs, such as F2FP. As the education director for Holly Hill Farm, Belber has established relationships with 40 schools in Massachusetts, and has worked with teachers to bring real-life lessons from the farm into the classroom. A customized curriculum, educational excursions to the farm and teacher training workshops are available.

Belber also makes frequent visits to school gardens, teaching students about planting, daily care, and harvesting techniques. In many cases, the food grown in these gardens is cooked in the schools’ kitchens and served to the students/gardeners in their cafeterias.

Back on the path with their wheelbarrows, the F2FP participants make their way down the hill, and stop at one of the farm’s 20 outdoor garden beds to heave leaves over last season’s tomatoes. “We’re using these leaves as a mulch to keep the nutrient-rich soil in place,” says Belber. Next, the group ducks into one of the farm’s four “hoop house” greenhouses.

Inside, protected by a plastic covering, the crops are thriving. Rows of spicy arugula, green and red leaf lettuce, spinach and kale carpet the ground. Crouching over a row of small shoots, Belber demonstrates the process of winter scratch weeding: gently scraping the soil around each individual plant to promote growth and moisture retention.

The vibrant color of the greens is a striking contrast to the leafless landscape outside. These steel-frame covered structures extend Holly Hill Farm’s growing season to nearly year-round. A wood stove in the corner of the greenhouse keeps the crops from freezing during cold snaps. “[The greens] grow slower in the winter, but we’re still able to grow,” says Belber, who harvested 40 pounds of arugula to sell at one of the local winter farmers’ markets.