The Waltham Field Station is something of a secret garden. Nestled between two iconic local institutions–Bentley University and the Girl Scouts national museum at Camp Cedar Hill– the station also adds to Beaver Street’s immense cultural significance. All three institutions are built on land handed down from beloved local farmer and philanthropist Cornelia Warren, and each continue adding to the extraordinary legacy of the land. Yet, in order to truly witness the field station community, you have to look beyond the old brick buildings, dormant greenhouses, and chain link fences. From the street, you won’t be able to see the heart of the Waltham Field Station: Waltham Fields Community Farm.
Waltham Fields Community Farm is celebrating its 25th growing season this year. In 1994, Oakes Plimpton and a band of volunteers from Food For Free and the Cambridge Food Bank found the perfect extension of their gleaning practices: the fallow fields at the UMass Experiment Station. With UMass approval, the first growing season began in 1995, and Waltham Fields Community Farm was officially incorporated in 1996. The land had been neglected as UMass researchers moved out of Waltham and into Amherst, but its history was encouraging. In previous decades, the UMass property hosted commercial farmers, agricultural science researchers, students, federal and state government offices, community gardening clubs, horticultural societies, and even arborists. Now revitalized, the station and land host seven food and environmental justice non-profits and countless local communities. The Waltham Fields Community Farm was the first step in the revival of the station’s land and offices.
Community is not only a theme of the farm’s history, it’s a major tenet of daily farm life. I had the privilege of sitting down to speak with Stacey Daley, Executive Director, who told me about the farm-wide commitment to community through programming and practice. First and foremost: their motto-turned-rallying cry reads “Local food. For everyone.” This motto is the first source of inspiration for every farm event and program. The CSA farm share program offers a total of 460 shares, some of them subsidized, for summer and extended seasons. Through their CSA shares, Waltham residents have access to local produce and a share in the farm’s harvest. Weekly and walk-in volunteers help with daily farm maintenance and sometimes even crop planning. Smiling, Stacey told me about a volunteer activity which determines each person’s “spirit vegetable.” While the farm can’t grow everyone’s favorites, sometimes “spirit vegetables” inspire real ones, and are added to the list for future growing seasons. Of course, I had to ask Stacey what her spirit vegetable was. “It was fennel for a long time,” she replied, “but now I think it’s radicchio!”
Community also thrives in the farm’s educational initiatives, which offer opportunities to learn at any age. For their youngest audience, the farm hosts educational programs in the Learning Garden. Stacey emphasized how important it was for children to understand where their food comes from, and how it was grown. They need the “environmental, science-based, and hands on” experiences to truly grasp those ideas. In a densely populated town where some kids may not even have backyards, the farm creates a space for sustainable agriculture to become a familiar childhood encounter. And youth programming doesn’t stop with elementary students. Jessica Herwick, the farm education director, has collaborated with local high schoolers to create a teen employment program, which extends childhood encounters with the farm into long-term relationships. Finally, one WBUR article explains just how important the Waltham Fields Community Farm is as a resource for aspiring farmers: “talk to anyone in Massachusetts who works on a farm and they’ve probably spent some time learning their trade at Waltham Fields.” (Alex Green).
In recent years, the farm’s commitment to building a more accessible community has required extending beyond the farm’s original 8.2 acres The income and awareness provided by the CSA program support more recently developed programs outside of the field station, improving farm accessibility and upholding the commitment that the farm be a place “for everyone.” For 13 weeks of the summer, a Waltham Fields Community Farm Mobile Outreach Market sets up shop in downtown Waltham, welcoming families who may not have access to transportation to the field station. Outreach continues into the school year, as the farm works with Waltham Public Schools to create menus that feature fresh, locally grown Waltham Fields produce. I was surprised to learn that Waltham Public Schools is one of the few Massachusetts school systems that have functioning kitchens in school cafeterias, allowing farm produce to become ingredients for real recipes! Coordinated meal planning is also conducted with the Waltham Boys and Girls Club. Finally, every year the farm works hard to secure 20% of their fresh produce as donations to local hunger relief organizations, including Food for Free and the Greater Boston Food Bank. This work continues the field station’s commitment to community wide food justice.
Stacey and the farm’s staff are passionate about the programs they have designed and developed over 25 growing seasons. Beyond the structured programming, however, community is still a tenet in everyday life at the farm. This is Stacey’s favorite part of working at the Field Station: “this property is alive,” she explained, as children’s voices made their way through a window. The space fosters community organically, where families meet at the CSA stand or walk paths through the fields, and where all seven non-profits and other local groups interact and solve problems together. Her hope as the farm grows is that community gathers here in “casual and deliberate” ways. This, too, is what is so surprising to her about working for Waltham Fields Community Farm: “when I first started working here, I couldn’t believe this place existed!” How is it possible that it has remained a “secret” for so long? When I asked Stacey what she envisions for the future, she is counting on sustained support that will maintain this open space for “us all together to gather and enjoy,” where families might stop for picnics, or local artists may find inspiration. She wants this secret to be common knowledge.
If you are interested in volunteering, becoming a CSA member, participating in programming, or otherwise getting involved with the Waltham Fields Community Farm, check out their website for more information. Finally, contact your state and local legislators. Help the story of the Waltham Field Station become common knowledge.
By Anneke Craig, Boston Area Gleaners Intern