Interesting article from the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. We thank Peter & Jean Dewar for bringing this to our attention.
Why are there no agricultural voke tech schools in Central Mass.? Cost biggest factor
Kinga Borondy, Telegram & Gazette, March 20, 2023 at 5:06 AM EDT·7 min read
Norfolk County Agricultural High School in Walpole.
Farm fresh food is in fashion in Massachusetts. State programs promote it: from local and regional farmers markets to the state’s Healthy Initiatives Program (HIP) and “Buy Fresh Buy Local, “programs.
It takes farmers to produce food and state Sen. Anne Gobi, D-Spencer, wants high school students in her district to be able to study its production at a local agricultural vocational school. However, the cost of building a new agriculture-based vocational high school in the central part of the state, she learned, renders it out of reach.
Gobi arrived at that conclusion after she started looking into possibilities some years back. She looked at several options; a brand-new school, a hybrid structure; one that would be a partial rebuild combined with new construction and even a partnership with a local university.
New builds are priced out of reach
“The price tag for a new school was astronomical,” Gobi said.
But a vocational school focused on farming and agriculture in central Massachusetts makes sense. Almost half of all 7,200 Massachusetts farms are located in four contiguous counties: Worcester is home to 21% and Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin share another 28% amongst them. There is roughly a half-million acres of farmland in Massachusetts; 44% of farms are owned by women.
After seeing the price tag for a new, or even hybrid build, Gobi looked at a possible partnership between the vocational programs in the Worcester area and the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in North Grafton. Even though the university was open to the idea, the two programs were incompatible due to cost issues, distance and the needs of the students involved.
“Students studying to be veterinarians, vet techs, had priority,” Gobi said.
Worcester school officials are open to the idea of agricultural vocational education, according to a statement provided by the district.
Worcester school officials open to ag-tech
“The Worcester Public Schools welcomes open discussion on ways to enhance learning around topics that are relevant to the future of our students, including agriculture,” said Daniel O’Brien, a WPS spokesperson. “While there are no current plans to introduce a comprehensive agriculture program, we welcome new and creative ideas to support student learning.”
According to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) bringing agriculture or farming courses to an area could be accomplished by including the subjects in existing vocational programs or by creating a whole new school.
2gether We Eat launches its first youth hydroponic farming program at the Boys and Girls Club of Worcester in 2021.
Creating a new school has not been attempted for “a very long time” and as Gobi learned, the cost is prohibitive. And there are rules.
Massachusetts laws governing vocational education (Massachusetts General Law chapter 74, section 15) state: "Cities may establish and maintain schools for instructing families and individuals in day, part time or evening classes in gardening, fruit growing, floriculture, poultry raising, animal husbandry, and other branches of agriculture and horticulture. The location and organization thereof and the instruction given therein shall be subject to the approval of the commissioner."
Section 3, 4 and 5 of that law states that: towns and districts can set up vocational schools, and that collaboratives can conduct vocational programs, too.
Worcester elementary students at two city schools have access to one of those types of programs. Charles Luster, founder and executive director of 2gether We Eat, a hydroponic farming initiative, brings together his growing project with children attending the Vernon Hill Elementary School and starting this month, the Elm Park School
Freight car farms, hydroponics, is the future of farming
Using shipping containers equipped with LED lights, Luster can grow 12,000 plants, soil free, in each. The 45 youngsters enrolled in the afterschool program at Vernon Hill spend an afternoon every week learning about, and tending to, the plants inside the shipping container.
“We’re having our first harvest,” Luster said last week. Children at Vernon Hill are picking their first crop of lettuce: Romaine, arugula, and a house blend. Luster expects the second shipping container for his freight farm project to be delivered at Elm Park School on March 18.
Hydroponic lettuce, dandelion and other items in the greenhouse at Kettle Brook Farm in North Brookfield.
“We are the solution to future farming,” Luster said of the hydroponic project which has no limiting growing season and no interruption to the production of food.
The food the children grow finds its way to their homes, as well as area food cooperatives and community groups.
Luster launched his project in 2021 at the Boys and Girls Club of Worcester, offering a special class in hydroponic farming to youngers enrolled in programs there.
Gobi pledges to support food literacy bills
Gobi, a member of the food systems caucus in the Statehouse said she is looking over the bills filed and will support all those that pertain to food literacy in schools.
“Since the home economics programs were discontinued, there’s a big disconnect, children don’t know where their food comes from,” Gobi said, explaining that many believe milk comes from the local Cumberland Farms store. “We’re looking to change that dynamic.”
With the difficulty of establishing a standalone agricultural school in central Massachusetts, “cost-wise,” Gobi said she is looking for other ways to address the lack of a dedicated local “ag” program. Gobi added she is hopeful the creation of a director of rural affairs announced by Gov. Maura Healey will help.
The new director’s first task will be to review and coordinate all state funding and grant opportunities to ensure there are no application barriers for small towns and rural communities. These opportunities will also be collected in one central, easy to find, location for ease of application.
The office will offer communities technical assistance in finding and applying for state funding and the new director will be under the Executive Office of Economic Development (EOCD).
“The person in this position will need to be attuned to the unique needs of rural communities and the challenges they face in getting the support they need and accessing state resources,” said Margaret Quackenbush, an EOCD spokesperson. “It’s important that this individual have firsthand understanding of the issues that rural communities face.”
The state’s four agricultural-based vocational high schools have waiting lists that are hundreds of students long. The schools are dispersed around the state; three in the eastern regions and the fourth is located in western Massachusetts: Essex North Shore Agricultural & Technical High School in Danvers, Norfolk County Agricultural School in Walpole, Bristol County Agricultural High School in Dighton and Smith Vocational & Agricultural High School in Northampton.
More students, less room
Vocational schools have seen a surge in applications and interest in their farming, veterinary, environmental, and land management shops. And some non-agricultural vocational schools have incorporated courses like horticulture into their curricula to support areas like culinary arts and hospitality management.
In general, more than 6,000 students are on the waiting lists of the state’s vocational schools. The Vocational Education Justice Coalition would welcome a new, stand-alone agriculture vocational school in the central part of the state.
Agriculture, Lew Finfer, a spokesman for the coalition said, is not just about growing. “It includes managing livestock, machines. A large number of farms in Massachusetts are small or medium sized,” Finfer said, explaining that farmers need to know how to run the entire enterprise, including maintaining equipment.
The locations of the four schools are able to serve students in much of the state, but for students in central Massachusetts looking to study farming and agriculture, the only options are the 4-H Clubs, The Grange, random programs already offered at the existing vocational schools and some programs that link schools with local collaborative growers.
For her part, Gobi thinks building an agricultural school in central Massachusetts is an idea worth exploring.
“The biggest pitfall is the high cost, and the question: who is going to pay for it?” said Gobi. “But it would be great.
David J. Ferreira
MAVA Communications Coordinator