Roots Rising is not just a summer job for Pittsfield teens; it is a farm-based youth development program, which focuses on a real need in our community. The need for meaningful work for teens – work that serves some sort of larger social purpose. Roots Rising, a program of Alchemy Initiative, will hire three seasonal Farm Crews each year consisting of high school aged students from Pittsfield, and as part of this intensive, paid opportunity, they will learn both farm skills and life skills, with programs ranging from culinary lessons to financial literacy. The program, launched in 2017, is growing quickly, and in need of a 15-passenger van to transport its farm crew to the varied work sites throughout Berkshire County. (More information on how you can help/donate.) We sat down with Founding Co-Directors of Roots Rising, Jess Vecchia and Jamie Samowitz, to learn more about this outstanding opportunity for local teens and the contributions they are making to our community and our local economy.
Roots Rising is modeled largely after The Food Project in Boston, MA – a 27-year-old organization that “has built a national model of engaging young people in personal and social change through sustainable agriculture” (thefoodproject.org). Vecchia and Samowitz both studied separately with The Food Project, taking intensives, and upon returning, worked for two years adapting this program for The Berkshires.
Vecchia and Samowitz have found that unpaid internships are either not available or practical for Pittsfield youth; and there is a real need for paid and meaningful work – work that needs to be done and serves a social good. “We believe that meaningful work is really transformative, and it leaves the youth feeling purposeful, capable, and connected”, says Vecchia.
“Although the work is farm-based, we aren’t looking to train farmers per say…. We use farm work as a platform to train the teens in some basic life skills and workforce job training skills as well”. Life skills such as conflict resolution, creative problem solving, and giving and receiving feedback are all learned as a part of the Roots Rising curriculum.
“We’ve found that teens and farms are really a perfect match for each other”, says Samowitz. “Teens are living increasingly sedentary, indoor and screen-based lives, and farming is really the opposite of that- they’re outside, it’s sensory, they’re in contact with the land and with people who are different from them and of different ages…. We found that farmers also really need teens. The teens have energy, stamina and enthusiasm, and we pick farms that are using sustainable growing methods which are often labor intensive and really in need of the kind of labor that we can provide. We show up as a team of 15 and we can get a whole lot of work done. We are really supporting the local food system, and right now we have more farms that want to take on our work crew that we can provide.”
The Roots Rising summer program is a 5-week intensive, Monday through Friday job experience, which this year will include 4 farms of different size and scale, 2 community gardens, and a day each week spent stocking the Berkshire Dream Center Food Pantry. Every day of the week the teens in the program work on a different project at a different venue. The farms and organizations are not creating special projects for the teens, the Roots Rising crew simply shows up and completes the projects that need to be completed at the farms as part of the farmers’ livelihoods. Tasks include picking weeds, trail maintenance, caring for animals, building raised beds, and more. Weekly visits ensure that the teens get to see and appreciate the progress made at each location over the 5 weeks.
This year’s farms include Holiday Brook Farm in Dalton, MA, Abode Farm in New Lebanon, NY, and Red Shirt Farm in Lanesborough, MA. “We look for farms that are really interested in working with our youth out in the fields and sharing their knowledge”, says Samowitz. “Adult mentorship is one of the key takeaways from our program”. Adult mentorship has been found to create higher self-esteem in teens and help them to make better life choices.
Weekly culinary lessons are also provided to the teens in the program, so they can feel comfortable in the kitchen and learn how to prepare affordable and nutrient dense meals. “Real Talk” is another weekly feature of the program. “It is a way of giving and receiving feedback that contributes to a crew member’s growth as a person”, explains Samowitz. Crew and staff all sit in a circle and each person is reminded of their goal and then given feedback on what the others see in their behavior that is helping them meet their goals or that is blocking them. “The process is not a dialogue. ‘Real Talk’ is a gift that comes from a place of kindness…. It is a democratic and positive process, and a beautiful experience”, says Samowitz. “We believe that self-knowledge equals power”, adds Vecchia.
Crew members are also treated to field trips and workshops throughout the summer. As each crew member can earn up to $1000 for the summer, each teen participates in a financial literacy workshop at Berkshire Bank where they learn to set up a bank account and create a budget.
Applicants for the Roots Rising Farm Crews are limited to Pittsfield residents who are current high school students at the date of their application. This year, 5 high schools are represented in the applicants for the summer farm crew for which the application period is now closed. All applicants are interviewed so they can learn about the job application process.
Last year, 24 youth were selected for 3 seasonal farm crews from 120 applicants. This year, the goal is to employ 36 youth in 3 seasonal farm crews. So far 55 students have applied with 2 more recruiting sessions left this year. The ultimate goal is to run the program with 45 youth each year, which would include a “graduate level” crew (“truck crew”) for returning teens with a focus on running a non-profit food truck. All crew members are provided with lunch and snacks daily; a uniform consisting of a hat, water bottle, and t-shirt; and transportation from a central meeting point.
Because the program is growing so fast, the immediate need is for transportation. The program provides daily transportation to and from its work sites throughout the county from a convenient meeting spot in Pittsfield. The 15-passenger van that was used for last year’s program is no longer available to rent, and a fundraising campaign is underway to raise money to secure a new van for transporting this year’s farm crew. The transportation piece helps level the playing field for all Pittsfield teens and helps ensure that no youth who apply will be unable to participate due to transportation issues to job sites. Roots Rising starts its summer session on July 2nd, and they cannot run the program without the van. Therefore the 2018 class of the 1Berkshire Berkshire Leadership Program has chosen to celebrate their program’s 20th anniversary by creating a fundraising campaign to raise money for Roots Rising’s new van. In celebration of the 20 years, they are asking everyone to donate $20 (or more!) to reach their goal of $20,000 for Roots Rising.
“When Jess Vecchia gave her Roots Rising presentation at one of our Berkshire Leadership Program sessions, many of us were quite moved. This youth development program is so inspiring, we felt compelled to fulfill a very real need in our community”, says Cheryl Mirer, Executive Director of Downtown Pittsfield, Inc. and member of the 2018 class of the 1Berkshire Berkshire Leadership Program. “So many of my neighbors don’t own cars, which is extremely challenging when living in the Berkshires, especially when you have children. Who doesn’t want the best for their kids? This program is the best. We need to raise these funds for a van for Roots Rising so these kids – our kids – get the best.”
“We are very grateful for the support of the Berkshire Leadership Program…. They’re really stepping in at a perfect moment for us to join forces…. because we are in need of the van for the summer”, says Samowitz.
Roots Rising’s achievements in its first year of operation included devoting 4,260 hours of labor to strengthening the local food system, and because of the additional labor provided by the Roots Rising Farm Crew, the Berkshire Dream Center was able to expand its mobile food pantry, create a new route, and stock and distribute 3,600 pounds of food each week to neighbors in need.
Pittsfield teens who have completed a season on a Roots Rising Farm Crew have many take-aways including learning about patience, perseverance, team work, punctuality, and stepping outside of one’s comfort zone. All parts of the program have a learning component. If their workers are late, they don’t work, and they don’t get paid. The work is hard and physical and exhausting at times, but the crew “works until the job is done because the farmers are relying on (them)” says Samowitz. “This goes back to that meaningful work piece”.
Samowitz and Vecchia are not trying to train a cohort of farmers, although some of the teens do want to pursue farming. One crew alumnus was recently accepted into the Stockbridge School of Agriculture. Other teens want to be a doctor, a nurse, or a small business owner. “We really want to give the teens the skills, the knowledge, and the confidence to achieve their own dreams whatever those dreams are”.
Seasonal farm crews are selected to reflect the diversity of Pittsfield. “All walks of life are represented in our crews, and the teens learn as much from each other as they do from our educational workshops”. In the end, after many challenging days of hard labor and overcoming obstacles, “the most common way that people describe our crew is a family”.
By Kimberly Gritman
Roots Rising is a program of Alchemy Initiative. Roots Rising is partially funded by Berkshire United Way, as well as by numerous foundations and private donors. For more information on the program, visit rootsrising.org or email [email protected]. Alchemy Initiative’s mission is to use food as the foundation for creative community building. To learn more, visit alchemyinitiative.org.
Roots Rising was developed in collaboration by Alchemy Initiative and Berkshire Botanical Garden and launched in 2017. Now that the program is in operation, the two organizations have agreed to shift to a single managing organization. This will ensure the most efficient oversight of the program’s continued growth and success. Effective May 2018, Roots Rising has become a program of Alchemy Initiative, with Berkshire Botanical Garden stepping aside as a program partner.