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Bilecki finds that students enrolled in the gardening course she teaches are both willing learners and willing workers.

New Job for a Beginning Farmer

Bilecki Shares Her Wisdom.

Talk to as many farmers who are doing what you want to do and also those who are doing other things. Follow up with visits to their farms. Go work a few hours or days at different places. See lots of examples of successful farm operations. You will see practices that fit your farm and your situation.

Jessica Bilecki, the garden manager and a gardening teacher at a residential high school in east central Ohio, is committed to eating locally grown nutritious food. She has grown food for 40 subscribers to a Community-Supported Agriculture operation and now is responsible to grow as much food as possible for a school body of about 80. While Jessica has questions about the numbers of people and the scale of a farm that will be in her future (she thinks she would be happy growing just her own food), she is certain about other things. First, Jessica wants to get more skilled at growing food. Second, Jessica sees the ability to grow one’s own food with few inputs as a vital life skill. Third, Jessica thinks that growing on a smaller, more personal scale is environmentally sound and a good pest management practice.

To increase the sustainability of the school’s farm, Jessica made several significant changes that result from her participation in Wisdom in the Land.

Resources. Through her participation in a beginning farmers program Jessica heard about the operations of many experienced farmers and observed that very successful farmers seemed to have an involved spouse or partner. To protect and enrich the soils on which Jessica plants vegetables, Jessica adds compost, put a section in no-till, and has set up beds on contour to hold the rain in the landscape for a longer period. In spring 2009 Jessica and others installed a small rain water catchment. Jessica intends to enhance the production of edible native species, which because they are perennial and local are more disease resistant and less vulnerable. Many farmers face labor challenges. While students enrolled in the gardening course are willing learners and workers, their availability is often limited to the 40 minute time blocks between classes. During the summer, Jessica gets help from crew workers and hopes that in the future highly interested students will be available. Jessica used to be a self-taught, independent, heads down learner. Her recent experience as a participant in a beginning farmers program gave her opportunity to listen to the effective questions other farmers asked and helped her learn to ask more relevant questions to support her learning. She also worked briefly with a mentor. Now she networks more readily, asks more questions, and has become a more social learner. She attends annual conferences sponsored by Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) and by Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture (PASA). Jessica recently participated in a permaculture design course offered by the Association For Regenerative Culture and maintains her involvement with area participants. Through conversations with a local farmer, Jessica learned about and attended business incubator meetings in her area, stimulated by a county economic developer. In 2009 the Midway Community Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to area economic development, is functioning and offers a facility at which the school created salsa, processed from its own produce. The school also provides a community of mentors. Even her sporadic participation in three area farmers markets become knowledge and relationship building experiences as Jessica is able to learn who is doing what in a community of which she is a new member. Undoubtedly, all of these experiences help Jessica be an effective instructor.

Production. A unique challenge Jessica faces is that for most of growing season the beneficiaries of her farm planning and labor are not at the school to eat the food produced. Season extension practices are a strategic response to this dilemma. Two cold frames have been built and a hoop house is being planned. In the school kitchen, farm produce is used to make pesto, and greens are blanched and frozen for future use. Value-add processing, which the school has done at the commercial kitchen and thermal processing facility at ACEnet Food Ventures in Athens Ohio, is a fundraising strategy, creating apple butters and salsas for sale. Jessica also raises money by selling summer produce at three farmers markets and is increasingly less intimidated by these direct marketing responsibilities.

Business. Asking herself how hard she intended to work, Jessica decided to change her circumstances in which she farmed. Rather than farm commercially and be profit-driven, she now farms for a school where the requirement is more about food productivity and education and less about business profitability. Obviously, food productivity is intended to have an economic benefit for the school, which Jessica delivers by growing diverse vegetable crops.

Contact Information:

Jessica Bilecki

Olney Friends School
61830 Sandy Ridge Road
Barnesville, OH 43713

Belmont County

740-425-3655 ext. 223

Jessica, who began farming in 2005, moved from southwest to east central Ohio in 2008, changing her customer base from subscription buyers to a residential student body. Previously she grew produce with two other beginning farmers on about 3 acres and had use of hay from surrounding fields of almost 20 acres. Jessica now shares her knowledge and gardens with small groups of students.