Working on a farm is a special experience that delivers more than a paycheck and teaches more than just what it’s like to show up for work. It builds grit and determination through demanding, physical labor; it requires hard work and patience through the growing season; it fosters communication and interpersonal skills with every farmstand customer transaction; it shows nature and science in action through agriculture; and teaches the profound responsibility that comes with caring for animals.
These are all skills that Madeline Conover, a Regis College senior from West Newbury, has cultivated in herself over the past seven years working at Long Hill Orchard & Farm in West Newbury, where she’s done everything from planting and harvesting, to selling produce at farmers markets and working on the CSA. “There’s really a lot you can learn from working on a farm that you can apply in everyday life,” she says.
Conover’s farm work is a lot for someone who is also president of her college’s class of 2024, plays on the women’s lacrosse team, and holds various leadership positions within her school community. But over the summer, Conover added another role to her job at Long Hill Orchard & Farm: running the farm’s Summer Employability Experience Program, which provides learning and job opportunities to neurodiverse and special education students from Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School.
Kristin Bucco, a special education teacher at Whittier Tech and member of Long Hill Orchard’s CSA, approached Cindy Adams, who co-owns the farm with her husband, John, about establishing a Summer Employability Experience Program worksite on the farm. That’s when Adams tapped Conover to run it. “She jumped on board right away,” Adams says. More than that, Conover loved it, with the program giving her a chance to work with the kind of population she’d like to work with during her eventual career. “I’m an exercise science student but I’m on an occupational therapy track at school.
So, essentially, I would like to go to grad school and become an occupational therapist and work with this . . . neurodiverse population,” she says. “I finally got to dip my toes into something that I actually want to do with the rest of my life.” Neurodivergence refers to a range of differences in cognition and brain function, ranging from autism to ADHD and dyslexia.
The roughly 12 students in the program worked on the farm in smaller groups throughout the week and performed tasks like planting, weeding, harvesting, washing crates, taking care of animals, and setting up the farmstand. Adams says it was clear that the students had fun and took a lot of pride in their work and accomplishments throughout the summer.
That was true whether they were getting dirty weeding, watching peppers that they planted grow, or collecting eggs from the ducks and chickens. “It was meaningful to every single person. Everybody felt good about it, and they were just so happy with what they accomplished. They were taking pride in their work,” Adams says. “Everyone just got right down to work.
They took it seriously, and they did a beautiful job.” Adams says working on a farm offers so much beyond the chance to be outside, get job experience, and learn skills. The students also learned the steps needed to set goals, complete tasks, how to execute them, and then, finally, experience the results of that work.
They could see the fruits of their labor— literally. “They could see results from week to week when they would come back,” Adams says. “They got to see their accomplishments.” Adams loved seeing the students having fun, not just at work but at the end of a long day, when they’d relax with a fruit pie at one of the long picnic tables under a tent.
She adds that the sense of pride, accomplishment, and happiness went both ways. In addition to giving the students job experience, Adams says being a part of the program “was a positive thing for us, too.” “We are very community based. A huge part of our community is giving back to the people that give to us and that come in and support the farm,” she says.
“I just knew that if we could do it, it would be a great way to give back to the community and to hopefully teach these kids some skills that will help them land a job later on. Conover agrees, saying that she, too, got a lot out of the experience and hopes to do it again next year.
She says she got an “awesome thank-you card” that the students signed with a little message. The card hangs in her dorm room. “For me, it was just such a rewarding experience to be able to connect with the kids,” she says. “It was really just an awesome experience.”