HOLYOKE Nuestras Ra ces Farms, overlooking the scenic Connecticut River, is experiencing a growth spurt that will benefit area residents and future entrepreneurs for years to come.
New farm businesses, a youth-run petting zoo and an expanded farm store are only a sampling of what awaits area residents when the grand opening of the farm season opens on July 7, according to Eric Toensmeier, farm project director. Nuestras Ra ces Farms is an expansive tract of cultivated land off Jones Ferry Road that is run by Nuestras Ra ces.
Nuestras Ra ces is a grassroots organization that promotes economic, human and community development in the city through projects relating to food and agriculture. Projects sponsored by the organization include community gardens, youth development programs, economic development initiatives, and a women's leadership group. In addition, Nuestras Ra ces runs the Tierra de Oportunidades Farm Incubator and Environmental Education Project off Jones Ferry Road, a beginning farmer training project, business incubator, environmental conservation and stewardship project that also features youth development initiatives and cultural development projects.
During a recent late afternoon tour of the lush farm grounds, Toensmeier and Sister Elizabeth Oleksak, S.P., were anxious to show off all the activity underway at the site in preparation for the grand opening celebration. Oleksak serves on the board of directors of Nuestras Ra ces.
Oleksak explained during an interview with Reminder Publications that the Sisters of Providence (SPs) and Nuestras Ra ces have entered into a joint application with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for an Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR). If approved, the APR will result in the state purchasing the development rights to almost 30 acres of land along the Connecticut River.
That action would provide for land preservation for agricultural uses only and in perpetuity. Currently, the SPs have 24 acres of farmland adjacent to more than four acres owned and farmed by Nuestras Ra ces.
"This plan plants new seeds of hope for the future," said Oleksak, adding, "as Providence unfolds in our lives we are always invited to be open to the unexpected."
Oleksak also noted that the project is in keeping with the SPs mission that calls them to care and protect the Earth.
Toensmeier echoed those sentiments and explained that many Nuestras Ra ces members grew up on farms in Puerto Rico and many first came to this area as migrant farm workers. He stressed that many of the farmers have a lifetime of experience in agriculture and are highly skilled at their trade.
Nuestras Ra ces members understand the importance of urban agriculture and its effective way to promote community development for its residents as well as maintain a connection to one's culture, he added.
Toensmeier also noted that farmers not only are proud to use their skills to improve their community but also relish the chance to educate a younger generation on one's cultural heritage.
Holyoke resident Kevin Andaluz serves as farm manager and said he feels at home when he's working the land. Andaluz' experience comes from working his father's farm in Puerto Rico many years ago. Andaluz was working alongside Leo Perez, also of Holyoke, on an irrigation project. Perez noted he also enjoys working the fields after school, considering the experience "fulfilling."
Oleksak embraced both men and reiterated that the farm project offers an opportunity for young people to be entrepreneurs which can change their whole outlook on life.
"They can look forward to the future with hope," she said.
Within weeks, Toensmeier expects the farm store to be brimming with fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as an abundance of flowers. In addition to the many herbs and berries that will be available in the coming weeks, visitors will also find tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, corn, squash, lettuce and beans.
Oleksak called Toensmeier a "man of the Earth" because of his abilities to understand the intricate needs of the land.
Toensmeier smiled and said he's at his best when he's working the land.
"It's an exciting project to be a part of," he added.
As dusk was settling in, Toensmeier lit up when asked what his current top need is for the farm. He didn't hesitate to say a riding lawnmower, but any farm-related equipment would be welcome.
Nuestras Ra ces was founded in 1992 with a mission to build cultural pride as well as assist low-income Latinos in the city in addressing environmental, economic development, substance abuse, and food security issues. One of its most ambitious projects is its role with the Holyoke Food & Fitness Policy Council in creating environmental and policy initiatives that will help city residents embrace an active lifestyle and eat healthier. Holyoke was one of nine communities chosen to serve as a national model for the 10-year community wide initiative, funded through a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
The initiative to curtail obesity is a perfect complement to the farm grounds which promotes sustainable, healthy food to grow and purchase, added Sister Oleksak.
For more information on Nuestras Ra ces as well as ways to get involved, visit www.nuestras-raices.org. To view the farm's "wish list," visit the website or contact Toensmeier at (413) 535-1789.