by Laura Rodley
Sometimes a farm’s buildings and land constitute its backbone, maintaining its taproot even while it no longer functions as a farm. A farm purchased in 1870 by the Williams family in Buckland, MA, with its landmark red barn, was actively farmed by the late Francis and Harry Williams until the 1960s. Changing hands several times, locals still called it Williams Farm.
The farm was exactly what Ben Murray, then a Northampton, MA resident, visualized and searched out for two years, as his vision of a perfect teaching farm. During those two years, he formed the non-profit Kistner Foundation Inc., named in honor of his grandmother, with four others making a Board of Directors: his father Ted Murray, Buckland residents Peter Kitchell and Melissa Letourneau, and Louise Smith of Montague.
“It was my vision and my idea,” he said. “I work for the foundation and the farm.”
The closing on the 60 acre farm occurred on Sept. 12, 2001, just after 9/11, giving their purpose “even more meaning as we go forward,” noted Murray. Renamed “Red Gate Farm,” he nurtured its taproot, bringing it back to life with a milking shorthorn ox, four goats, chickens and sheep.
Graduating from Yale in 1995, certified to teach secondary school, Murray realized teaching inside was not for him. Working at an educational farm, New Pond Farm in West Redding, CT, he “knew that’s where I wanted to be.” Trying another job fit in D.C. became the impetus for starting his own teaching farm.
“I had an epiphany about this type of education. I’m ideally suited for it, and I didn’t know it. I love animals, love working with my hands, love teaching kids in context. If you had described this to me at the time and asked me if this is what I wanted to be when I grew up, this would be it.”
After hosting 12 years of day programs for schools, Buckland Shelburne Regional Elementary School students inaugurated Red Gate’s brand new dozen cabin tents — stretched canvas over wooden frames — by staying three nights. Murray called it, “A capstone for our year of transformation, the beginning of new school relationships,” said Murray.
Schools pay tuition per student, sometimes outside budgets. “It was so important for me to have a relationship with a Springfield school, Gerena Elementary School, they came on scholarship,” said Murray.
“They are welcomed, ‘You are now a farmer,’ from the minute off the bus to the minute they leave,” said Murray. Students rose at 6 a.m., did chores before breakfast, and helped Murray thin sugarbush maples, muck stalls and garden.
“Out of 34 kids, for most of them, it was their first night away from their parents, an act of courage for their parents and for them, sleeping in cabin tents with pitch black skies and coyotes and owls. Three kids told me it was the best day of their life, others told me they never want to leave.”
“We have a fundamental belief that living and working on a farm is a strong value set,” said Murray. “The fact that [the U.S.] has fewer farms, to me, is one of the sources of loss of a cultural and social value set, an inability for people to relate to each other the same way.”
Murray admitted, “I feel very small next to real farmers. Very sensitive to the fact that we don’t farm for value-added products the way most farms do. We do real farming, eat our sheep, eat our chickens, eat our pigs, and are very much a farm but if weather wipes out my tomato crops, we’ll buy more tomatoes to teach a class on tomatoes. It’s a different set of concerns. Most farmers worry about weather, I worry about funding,” he said.