UMass Amherst Launches New Agricultural Learning Center to Serve as a Field Laboratory for Agriculture Courses

AMHERST, Mass. – The University of Massachusetts Amherst will develop a new Agricultural Learning Center on the former Wysocki Farm on North Pleasant Street to serve as a hands-on, living classroom for students to learn about farming and the horticultural, nursery and landscape industries. The center will also have small areas devoted to livestock, fruits, vegetables, turf and landscape crops.
The center is being created by the university’s Center for Agriculture and the Stockbridge School and will open for classes in fall 2014. The project will be located on Wysocki Field (40 acres) on the east side of North Pleasant Street. The area is within walking distance to the main campus.
About 200 students will use the Learning Center each year with many likely to take multiple classes at the site.
The new center, to be headed by Stephen Herbert, director of the Center for Agriculture, is primarily designed to return student participation in farming to the main UMass Amherst campus. During the last half of the 20th century, UMass Amherst students and faculty have conducted agricultural research and housed and pastured animals on the university’s five off-campus farms located in Deerfield, Hadley, Belchertown and East Wareham.
Herbert said, “When UMass Amherst started as a land-grant college 150 years ago, it was deeply rooted in agriculture and affectionately nicknamed “Mass Aggie.”  True to its roots, UMass Amherst’s new Agricultural Learning Center will be a hands-on living “classroom,” for undergraduates, graduate students and residents of Massachusetts who want to be actively engaged in learning about all forms of agriculture in the Commonwealth.”
In recent years many Massachusetts residents have rediscovered the importance of local food and local agriculture, and farming is once again sparking interest and enthusiasm in college-aged people. The Learning Center is intended to bring the state’s agricultural focus to Amherst, echoing the creation of the university as an agricultural land grant college in 1863. This linking of past, present and future roles in agriculture will strengthen the university’s role as a national leader in green initiatives and sustainability and can serve as a visible symbol of the importance of agriculture to UMass Amherst, the Pioneer Valley and the state.
In keeping with this foundational linkage, plans call for preserving two historic buildings that will be moved onto Wysocki Field from their current location near the George N. Parks Minuteman Marching Band Building. An assessment of the feasibility of this plan is under way and will determine if the buildings are sound and can be moved to the new site.
One is the historic Horse Barn, the last remaining barn on campus. Plans call for it to be renovated to retain the exterior appearance it had when it was built in 1894 as a once-proud showplace for the original Massachusetts Agricultural College. The interior will be renovated and reused as classrooms for students with one large space created for larger gatherings, including public workshops. The other building is the Blaisdell House, the original farm manager’s house.
Funding for the project comes from a combination of private fundraising and university support. Establishment of the working farm will be financed from the Center for Agriculture’s budget and possibly supplemented by in-kind gifts of equipment from business. Relocation and renovation of the Horse Barn is expected to cost approximately $5 million. The Blaisdell House cost remains under evaluation. Plans call for the two structures to be moved to Wysocki Field in appropriate locations while fundraising efforts for renovations are under way. The Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation has pledged $500,000 to the overall project.
The educational offerings at the Stockbridge School will generate the primary users of the center. These programs include five majors at the associate of science level, including arboriculture and community forest management, landscape contracting, sustainable food and farming, sustainable horticulture, and turfgrass management. Pending final approval, three new majors at the bachelor of science level, also will actively involve the center in their programs, including sustainable food and farming, sustainable horticulture and turfgrass science and management.
Plans are to move 12 to 15 Belted Galloway cows to the upper field pasture for part of the school year for student learning. At other times, there may be some sheep or goats at this site. A simple permanent fence will keep them enclosed. As this new center takes shape, several other types of animals may be added to the property including four-to-six dairy cows for the purpose of education about how to manage, care and milk them and similar managing techniques will be taught for pastured poultry.
The university and the Learning Center will encourage the use of the horse barn for educational public meetings related to agriculture. These will include workshops on topics ranging from growing and canning heirloom tomatoes to raising backyard chickens to proper ways to lay a stone wall or a brick path.