- The Washington Times - Monday, April 25, 2005

ATHOL, Mass.

Laura Jackson recently exchanged her beloved house near Philadelphia and her career as a documentary filmmaker for an aching back and a cramped bedroom on a farm in rural Massachusetts.

The 57-year-old enrolled in the Practical Farm Training Program at the Farm School in Athol, looking for a radical change of scenery and pace.

For the next nine months, she will live on the 180-acre farm about 70 miles northwest of Boston while learning her new trade from real farmers.

“I want to live more simply the rest of my life,” she said, trudging through a muddy field with her five classmates.

The six students paid up to $9,240 in tuition, room and board to the school this year. Fifteen students already have graduated from the program, founded by Ben Holmes three years ago.

Mr. Holmes, a San Francisco native, spent summers as a boy on a farm in Ohio. He wanted to teach farming the way he learned it — by getting his hands dirty.

“It’s an uphill battle to be a farmer,” he said. “It’s also a life that is a deeply rich experience.”

Carlen Adams Rigrod, the apprentice program’s director, said the school takes a much more “hands-on” approach than traditional agricultural science programs.

“There is certainly value in a more academic program, but it doesn’t necessarily fulfill the essential ingredient of actually doing it,” she said.

A similar strategy guides the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, a research program run by the University of California at Santa Cruz. The center offers the same kinds of teaching and training as the Farm School, only on a larger scale, with more than 40 students growing 125 different kinds of crops.

The Farm School in Athol boasts 90 acres of woods and 40 acres of open land, including 12 acres of land for vegetable crops and cattle grazing. Students learn practical skills such as operating a tractor or a chain saw. They learn how to cultivate crops, care for animals and manage a farm budget.

Most of the students share a Colonial-era farmhouse, sleeping in small bedrooms or lofts and sharing cooking and cleaning duties. Before the adult apprentice program began in 2002, the farm was strictly an educational facility for children.

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