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Above: From left: Lucas Howerter, Olga O’Neill, and Amanda Senseman pose in front of Brookside School Farm in November, shortly after Howerter and Senseman were chosen from a group of applicants to license the land for three years.

Brookside School Farm’s Fallow Days Are Over

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

It’s official: a trio of three local farmers will take over the one-acre Brookside School Farm at Brookside Elementary School in Willits. Lucas Howerter and Amanda Senseman will co-farm the land, and Michael Foley will serve as mentor and advisor.

The trio has secured a full liability insurance policy, passed security checks to be on school property, and signed a three-year license agreement which can be renewed for another three years.

A dedicated team of Willits Unified School District staff and community volunteers partnered with the Farm2Fork project of North Coast Opportunities—Community Action, and together came up with the groundbreaking new concept of licensing school land to farmers to grow food for the school and community. At least 15% of the land must be dedicated to growing food for the schools, and the farmers will work with Christy Wisdom, WUSD’s Food Service Director, to decide what to grow. They’ll start by plowing the field and planting cover crops this winter, with the first food crops going into school cafeterias in the spring.

 “It’s an innovative model for empowering new farmers with the support they need to be successful: land, equipment, mentorship, and marketing,” Says Susan Lightfoot, Farm2Fork Coordinator. “We are so excited and are grateful for the leadership and vision of the Willits Unified School District for making this happen.”

Brookside School Farm already has significant infrastructure, including a hoop house, vegetable washing station, rainwater catchment system, solar power, and some tools. Beyond the equipment and water provisions, Senseman and Howerter will be fully responsible for all expenses and for generating income from the land, a challenge they’re both ready to face head-on.

Senseman comes from Green Uprising Farm, where she started as an intern five years ago. Howerter has been at Ecology Action for the past two and a half years, first as an intern and then as a Field Coordinator at the Golden Rule Farm. Both have experience in environmental and nutrition education, and they both love working with kids. “We’re passionate about providing the right kind of food to the most people possible,” says Senseman. “Working with students will help us get more people educated and involved in the local food movement.”

Michael Foley is an experienced farmer and businessman, and will mentor Senseman and Howerter as they get their new business started. “With the three of them together, they have the experience, motivation, and dedication to make it happen,” says Lightfoot.

Brookside offers a unique entry point into the business for new farmers. “It’s hard for young farmers to find reasonably priced land or a good agreement to farm someone else’s land,” says Howerter. “It’s one of the biggest barriers to becoming a new farmer. Brookside will show us what it takes to really get a small farm going.”

If successful, Senseman and Howerter may decide to move on to farming their own land, in which case Brookside will be available to offer the same learning experience to other new farmers.

“My intention is to continue with the project as a small-scale farm incubator,” says Foley. “If and when Amanda and Lucas decide to move on to their own land, Brookside Farm can be used to mentor new farmers.”

According to Lightfoot, first-year WUSD Superintendent Pat Johnson was impressed with the innovative idea and offered her complete support for the new approach. Brookside Principal Olga O’Neill was also an early proponent of the project. “We’re excited to see it become a thriving farm and expose our students to where their food comes from,” says O’Neill. She’s confident that the right group of farmers was chosen, saying, “They’re so positive and passionate about what they’re doing, and they have a realistic picture about what it’s going to take to do this huge job.” O’Neill adds, “They’ll make great role models for our students.”