“You spend so much time tenderly loving these little, tiny seedlings, hoping that they grow, and then you shove them in the ground.”
On the cold winter day I’m visiting, it’s hard to imagine Powisset Farm will ever show signs of life again. The 109 acres, located about 30 minutes southwest of Boston by car in Dover, are covered in fresh powder instead of corn, and everything is quiet.
But around the corner, pig noses peek out of a barn, their owners yearning to get out into the yard for feeding. There’s also a greenhouse with signs of spring hidden inside: foxgloves stretching their leaves eagerly awaiting their time in the sun, small seedlings sprouting in plastic pots.
Jessica Rice, 24, is in the middle of it all tending to lettuce, herbs, and radishes. Rice is young for the profession, as women farmers are still the exception in an industry dominated by older men. She works for the Trustees of Reservations, a nonprofit dedicated to conserving and preserving natural and historical spaces in Mass, including Powisset. Among their undertakings, members of the group grow produce for people in lower-income communities.
This was not always exactly what Rice saw herself doing. Though she did grow up in Foxborough, participating in 4-H events where she could show off her rabbits and chickens. Rice also followed in her father, grandfather, and brother’s footsteps, graduating from Norfolk County Agricultural High School (Norfolk Aggie) with a major in veterinary science. She then studied equine science and management at Morrisville State College, and the more time she spent with horses, the more she realized she wanted riding to be a hobby instead of her vocation. Switching her major to agriculture business development, Rice then strove to become an agriculture educator. But from there, the path did not prove to be as clear as she thought it would be.
“After I graduated college, I was working in retail and I just had a moment being like, ‘I’m stuck,’” Rice says. “I started looking at different parts [of farming], because if I wanted to teach agriculture education, how can I teach about vegetable production and farming when I’ve never done it?”
The answer to that question was Powisset. In April 2019, Rice joined the seasonal farm crew. This coming spring will be her third growing season with Powisset, and her love for this farm shows. Surveying the land, she describes the summer sunrises and sunsets. Pointing past the crop fields dusted in snow and a line of trees bordering the farm, she shows where the sun rises, then turns to face where it sets. She does this while noting that the beauty doesn’t always make her job any easier.
“Farming is the physically hardest job I’ve ever done,” Rice says with a laugh. “I work 10-hour days and am bent over most of the day—whether I’m bent over trying to pick crops, I’m sitting on the tractor, or leaning over sideways planting. You’re lifting 50-pound bins of vegetables every day to try and wash them.”
In the winter, Rice can mostly be found in the greenhouse, but she looks forward to the promise of the spring. She describes sitting on the back of the tractor as it drives forward, rapidly pulling plants off trays and shoving them in the ground. It’s all part of the grind; Rice fell in love with her job at Powisset through the acts of planting, seeding, and watching the progression of the farm through the seasons, as each turn represents a fresh start.
“You spend so much time tenderly loving these little, tiny seedlings, hoping that they grow, and then you shove them in the ground,” Rice says. “And you’re like, ‘Here’s your best shot.’”
Rice is one in about 1.2 million women famers. The 2017 US Census of Agriculture reported that women comprised 36% of the nation’s farmers. Further, only 9% of the nation’s agriculture producers are under the age of 35. Even with a 27% rise in the number of women in farming since 2012, Rice still notes a slight disparity in being a young woman in the farming industry.
In early February, a construction van was parked across the street at a neighboring farm and had managed to get stuck in the snow. As Rice approached two men standing next to the van, they looked at her and walked away. “It was like, ‘I have a tractor and I can pull you up,’ but I almost wanted to turn around, you know,” Rice says.
Even so, Rice emphasizes that the Trustees of Reservations (the Trustees) welcomed her with open arms. She felt accepted right away. Working with such an organization elicits a unique path in agriculture, with preservation, conservation, and community acting as the organization’s main focuses. The Trustees operate six farms in eastern Massachusetts, with Appleton Farms, Chestnut Hill Farm, Weir River Farm, Moose Hill Farm, and Powisset offering Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares in order to promote local consumption of produce and meat products. With these shares, people purchase a subscription to receive 20 weeks of fresh food during the growing season.
In addition to the CSAs, the Trustees also run a Mobile Farmers Market (Mobile Market) program that delivers food to low-income communities across Boston, with its hub at Powisset. Every week, a truck goes out from Powisset into Greater Boston delivering fresh produce to around 400 customers, many of whom reside in public housing projects. They partner with various community organizations and the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance in order to provide food in exchange for food stamps.
“Organic and local food is something that really only wealthy people can get in this country, and so we’re trying to change that,” Mobile Markets manager Phil Messier says. “This is a countercultural project, where we’re trying to make this food that’s really only available to a certain class of people available to the poorest people in Boston.”
The Mobile Market serves various communities, including immigrant communities from China and the Caribbean. Over the past few years, they have tested what produce works the best for their customers and the farmers started to tailor the produce grown on the farms. For instance, Rice plans on growing okra this coming season, in addition to the amaranth that is grown only for Mobile Market customers.
“Working for the Trustees is amazing,” Rice said. “We’re all working towards this goal of not only preserving land and making it available for the public, but we’re also working towards engaging the community and providing food to those low incomes and other areas that have problems getting food access.”