BY ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL
DAILY HAMPSHIRE GAZETTE
FRIDAY, MAY 19TH, 2023
HATFIELD — When U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern spoke in front of the crowd at Prospect Meadow Farms in Hatfield on Friday, he couldn’t help but to compare it to the halls of Congress in Washington, D.C.
“Everyone’s so happy, and the reason everyone’s so happy is because this is a happy place,” said McGovern about the farm. “I can contrast that to where I work, where it’s like one big, constant funeral.”
Scott Craven, the carpentry instructor at Prospect Meadow Farm in Hatfield, listens as Casey Millane, a farm hand and part of the carpentry crew, explains to Christine Dutton, a parent of a farm hand, some of the projects they are excited about in the new carpentry space.
McGovern, along with several state officials, visited Prospect Meadow Farms on Friday for a ribbon-cutting ceremony that marks the opening of the farm’s new Vocational Training and Production Center. Festivities marking the event included live music, a petting zoo for baby Nubian goats and servings of deviled eggs, charcuterie plates and chips with salsa.
Founded in 2011, Prospect Meadow Farms provides employment opportunities in the agricultural sector for people with developmental disabilities, on the autism spectrum or who have suffered a brain injury. Employees on the farm work on tasks ranging from washing eggs to feeding the farm’s llamas to helping grow shiitake mushrooms. More than 80 people now work at the location, according to farm management.
“I love my job because it always keeps me busy and I’m able to work with a great group of people,” said Becky Burke, who spoke at the event and has participated on the farm since May 2021. “I used to have trouble asking for help, but now I know if I’m having a hard time, there is always someone at the farm who I can talk to.”
The opening of its new vocational training center is the result of a $595,000 grant from the state’s Executive Office of Housing & Economic Development, as well as an additional $100,000 the farm received from a local fundraising effort. The upgrades to the facility include a production kitchen and a food packaging center, along with a carpentry workshop and expanded space to host classrooms.
“We learned shortly into the farm experience that it wasn’t just about farming,” said Shawn Robinson, the director of vocational services at Prospect Meadow Farms. “It was about farming, local food, landscaping and building, and we were seeing that the farmhands who were coming here, they were passionate about all of those areas.”
Alexandria Bussler, who works at the Rooster Cafe in Northampton, helps Senna Lauer, the culinary job coach at Prospect Meadow Farm and Josie Maldonado, a job coach in the Rooster Cafe, put together food plates for the event at the farm announcing the new kitchen and carpentry shop.
Robinson, who has a background in community organizing and whose parents worked at the Department of Developmental Services, has served as the director of the farm since its founding. With the new upgrades, he says the next step is providing job certifications for those who work at the farm.
“That’s what we’ve seen as sort of a neutralizing or balancing factor when it comes to getting people with disabilities jobs,” Robinson said. “When you can go to an interview and you can say to the boss, I’m ServSafe certified or OSHA certified, the boss knows what that training is and knows what it takes. It helps them get over any initial hesitations they might have by what they might be seeing on the surface.”
The farm also intends to expand across western Massachusetts in the near future, with locations planned for the Berkshires and the Orange-Athol area, according to Robinson.
“Orange-Athol has been a vision since the beginning of the farm,” he said. “We just know there’s a need out there for programming, largely because we get asked to transport a lot of people from that area and it’s a little too far to go.”
Robinson said the work on the farm could also serve as a model for fields beyond agriculture, and he’d also like to work to build connections with local unions over the next five years.
“We think culinary is going to be a piece of it. Eventually, auto mechanics will be a piece of it. Electronics work will be a piece of it,” Robinson said. “What’s cool is that these are all fields that we need people at, and these are fields where whether or not you have a disability doesn’t really factor in.”
For McGovern, the success of the farm serves as an inspiration for helping people with disabilities build careers, as well as providing an important source of local food.
“What I really love about this place is that this is a place that recognizes that no one is invisible, that every single person is important,” he said. “This really is a place that is a model for communities all around the state and all around the country.”
Alexander MacDougall can be reached at [email protected].