Hatfield’s Prospect Meadow Farm missing its helping hands

FRIDAY, MAY 15TH, 2020

Shawn Robinson remembers a ServiceNet client who wouldn’t leave the house for long periods of time. But then the agency brought in some farm animals to live outside his group home.

“Once we had the llamas, and he had a set routine being responsible for feeding the llamas, all of a sudden he would come out of the house regularly. And that grew to increased engagement with staff,” Robinson said.

ServiceNet is a nonprofit that provides employment services, sheltering services, programs that support people with developmental disabilities, and mental health services throughout western Massachusetts.

Robinson is ServiceNet’s director of vocational services. A decade ago, Robinson and his team had a challenge: Many of the people they supported needed jobs. At the same time, they began to see a pattern emerge at their residential programs that had animals.

 “Individuals with disabilities, particularly individuals on the autism spectrum, were able to connect with animals in a way that we weren’t usually seeing in our work,” Robinson said. “We saw something special there.”

The organization decided to start Prospect Meadow Farm, a not-for-profit farm in Hatfield that provides meaningful employment to people with developmental disabilities and autism.

Today, Robinson is the director of Prospect Meadow Farm. He explained that the farm has become a first job experience for many ServiceNet clients.

“We currently employ around 70 individuals with significant disabilities,” Robinson said. “They all make at least minimum wage. They typically work about 15 hours per week. And we spend another 15 hours a week working with them to help develop skills to help them prepare from moving on from our employment.”

But as they’ve been ramping up for the main growing season over the last few weeks, they’re missing these key players, who can’t come work on the farm while the governor’s emergency order remains in place.

It’s the farm’s biggest challenge from the pandemic.

“A lot of what we do is geared towards having the farm hands,” said David Jackson, assistant director of farming operations. “When they’re not around, it’s just not the same. We can still get everything done, but our real hope is that they’ll be back in time to participate.”

Prospect Meadow’s team grows a variety of vegetables and produces log-grown shiitake mushrooms, and they also raise chickens for eggs. At this time of year, the work is mostly preparation.

“At this point, we’ve got a bunch of our summer crops started in the greenhouse,” Jackson said. “We’ve gotten all our fields composted and prepped. So most of what we’re doing now is field prep, crop planning, and fixing equipment.”

The farm offers Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares, a model where customers pay up front at the beginning of the season, and then receive a weekly share of farm-fresh products. Prospect Meadow’s CSA, now in its eighth year, runs for 20 weeks from June through November. Each share aims to be enough produce for a family of four in a week, and a dozen eggs every other week.

“We are a traditional CSA,” Jackson said. “We are focused primarily on people coming to the farm and having a good experience.”

“We love that,” Robinson added. “They’re able to visit with the animals, and in the future, we’re hoping to expand on pick-your-own.”

This year, the public health emergency will require farms to adjust, so the farm team is preparing to pack up CSA shares for curbside pickup.

“People can just come in, their bag will be ready, and someone will check them off on a list,” Jackson said. “We’re a small CSA so we can cater to that — it’s not like you’re standing in line with a bunch of other people.”

The farm team is also open to delivering CSA shares to group homes that support people with developmental disabilities.

“Particularly during this time of the pandemic, if you are a residential program, not only of ServiceNet, but any other agency, we’d love the opportunity to offer you a discounted share delivered to your program. Left by the door every week, if that’s what works best for you,” Robinson said.

Right now, there is a small core staff running the farm.

“We’re currently learning the interesting lessons of workplace distancing,” Jackson said.

They have had to designate vehicles to certain people to maintain social distancing, and staff members are all siloed off taking care of individual responsibilities on the farm.

“As job coaches, we’re all so used to working together,” Jackson said. “There’s a lot of communication that takes place. We’ve all had to learn how to step back from that. A cellphone helps but it’s just not the same.”

Like so many other local businesses, Prospect Meadow is in a holding pattern of “wait and see.” But the good news is that regardless of how long social distancing measures are in place, the farm’s core staff will still have the capacity to provide the community with fresh produce, eggs and mushrooms. To sign up for Prospect Meadow Farm’s CSA, visit roostercafenorthampton.com.

You can also buy local food at Prospect Meadow’s farm stand in Hatfield, open year-round, with reduced hours during the COVID-19 emergency: Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The cancellation of many events and reduced wholesale orders from restaurants and local colleges has put immense pressure on many local farms — now is a great time to support a local farm in the community by buying a CSA share. Visit buylocalfood.org/farmguide to find a CSA near you.

Meanwhile, the team at Prospect Meadow Farm is just hoping that the crisis comes to an end as soon as possible so that the people their program supports can return to the farm.

“The guys and gals who come in really enjoy this work,” Jackson said. “So we’re just crossing our fingers.”

Noah Baustin is the communications coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).

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