It was mid-January when I read an internship opportunity listing that indicated that I could get both independent study credit and my “hands in a little soil.” I was immediately intrigued – and quite frankly, though I truly enjoy my experiences as an undergraduate student studying Environmental Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (UMass Amherst), it already sounded exponentially better than some other more traditional classroom-based courses that I had taken in the past. After an initial meeting with the coordinating faculty member, Professor Rick Harper, here in the Department of Environmental Conservation, arrangements were made for me to spend 40 hours working at a nearby tree “farming” operation, Amherst Nurseries (http://www.amherstnurseries.com) in my spring 2015 semester.

Owned and operated by UMass Amherst alum John Kinchla, Amherst Nurseries is a wholesale and retail nursery operation that specializes in the production of ornamental trees and shrubs on over 100 acres of productive land in Sunderland and Charlemont; it is headquartered in Amherst. An impressive array of trees, shrubs, perennials, ornamental grasses, vines and herbs comprise the thousands of plants produced by Amherst Nurseries each and every year.

Photos Courtesy of Ashley M. McElhinney and Rick W. Harper 

Day One …

Upon my arrival at Amherst Nurseries, I envisioned myself potting plants in a warm greenhouse. This would not be my reality. My first day was in early April and it was rainy, cold and dreary. Although I was only there for two hours, I left covered head to toe in mud. I spent that time helping to place young trees into bags, surrounding them with composted municipal plant material (from the town of Amherst) which served as the growing media, and fitting them with the proper ID tags. The task itself wasn’t challenging, but the weather made it something to endure. I was in utter disbelief that the workers managed to do tasks like this all day, everyday.

But it was clear from the start that these were no ordinary workers. They were by far the toughest, most hard-working people I’ve ever met. In this industry, nothing less will suffice – and survive. I’ve now seen firsthand how agricultural workers willingly brave the elements and the physical strain required of them, and in the case with the Amherst Nurseries’ staff, they maintain good spirits all the while. These people were really kind and welcoming, however, and made me feel comfortable from the start.

Women and agriculture

Most notable of the workers was the only woman of the crew, Sandy, who would undoubtedly put Rosie the Riveter to shame. In a recent survey done by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2014), the agriculture industry labor force is composed of only 26 percent women. Seeing the amazing work put forth by Sandy, I think it is important for the agricultural workforce to recognize that women have a lot to offer, and that this sector should strongly encourage female participation at the professional level. Observing her capability to match, if not surpass, the strength and work of the men gave me the perspective I needed to persevere through tasks that I assumed I was initially incapable of completing.

As a point of reference, I am the type of person who, more often than not, needs help opening a jar of peanut butter. So when I was instructed to, for instance, dig a tree out of the ground, I wasn’t sure how to react. Should I laugh, or maybe run away? I decided on the unlikely approach to actually try to complete the task at hand. There were times I somehow succeeded, and other times I had to ask for assistance.

Through time, I realized that accomplishing a task alone felt like an achievement, but asking for help wasn’t as terrible as I had imagined. Never once was I looked down upon for my lesser strength than any of the other workers, and I felt as if they appreciated me for even attempting.

On-the-job training

As previously mentioned, I started off tagging trees, then placing them into flexible grow bags (more formally known as the “in-ground fabric” production system). I learned from Mr. Kinchla, and hands-on, how these grow bags are beneficial to use for a number of reasons, especially when compared to the more traditional balled and burlapped (B&B) production methods:

  • they are lightweight, easy to move;
  • they take up only half the space of the same number of B&B-produced plants in a shipment; and
  • they help to greatly reduce the transplant shock to trees often associated with planting, since 90 percent of the tree’s root system remains in place after digging.

These grow bags also allow trees to be harvested from the early spring to the late fall and are easier to water. And because they are filled with a compost-based growing mix, they protect against the topsoil loss often encountered with other production systems. I feel that this is but one critical example as to how Amherst Nurseries aims to minimize its environmental impact and promote the sustainable production of trees.

Mr. Kinchla also takes measures to minimize the use of pesticides, and is particularly interested in selling plants to his local neighbors to reduce freight costs and minimize his environmental impact and carbon footprint. I also learned that he is also actively involved with UMass researchers to find better ways of estimating tree production and planting costs, and further reducing soil loss on production sites.

Other activities I found myself involved in at Amherst nurseries included organizing the hundreds of smaller plants and shrubs in the newly uncovered greenhouse for retail sale. Weeding and sorting these plants exposed me to their common and scientific names and though it was difficult to keep track of them all, I memorized a good deal of them. It was interesting to compare the similarities in scientific names and the plants’ physical appearances. An additional greenhouse housed plants produced by another local supplier. These plants will be allowed to grow for another year on-site, before they are returned as more mature specimens to the original producer.

I also did a considerable amount of fertilizing. Using a pesticide-free, slow-release formula, I administered fertilizer to both potted and in-ground plants to provide them with nutrients to aid in their growing process. This was another way I was exposed to plants’ names. Generally, there was an information card attached to the plant, explaining the basics of the specific plant – how much sun and water it required, when it would bloom, price, etc. By the end of my time at Amherst Nurseries, I learned a substantial amount about plant identification, which I had not initially anticipated.

Plants intended for retail were sorted and weeded in a recently uncovered hoop house.

The owner (and Jack of all trades)

With the wide range of different plant species present at Amherst Nurseries, comes an equally impressive wide range of required knowledge of the growing conditions needed to keep those specimens healthy and performing optimally. In addition to this impressive agricultural knowledge, Mr. Kinchla knew the ins and outs of how to successfully run a business – no small feat in the 21st century, where local growers compete with all sorts of other operations, large and small, from all over the country and even all over the world. Furthermore, Mr. Kinchla was good with people: I observed him on several occasions explaining and recommending the best way to nurture the plants that he had grown, including when and where to plant them, how big they will be at the time of maturity, and other helpful tips that customers evidently found useful. In addition to plant production, Mr. Kinchla and his staff design, install and maintain landscapes that they “grow for,” working with both small residential and large-scale customers like schools, parks and industrial sites.

Seeing it through

After my first day on the job, the other workers jokingly made bets if I’d be returning or calling it quits. Apparently it wasn’t hard to tell how timid and weak I was feeling, but seeing as the first day was the toughest, I’m glad I persevered and returned the following day. Not only did this experience teach me about the agricultural business, it taught me a good deal about my own capabilities and myself. This was my first, hopefully of many, hands-on work experiences … and I can certainly say that I enjoyed “getting my hands in a little soil.”

I would like to thank Professor Rick Harper and John Kinchla for their guidance and support throughout my experience.

Ashley McElhinney is a junior at University of Massachusetts Amherst; she is studying Environmental Science and planning to pursue a career in ecosystems conservation. Rick Harper is an Extension Assistant Professor of Urban & Community Forestry in the Department of Environmental Conservation at UMass Amherst. He can be reached at rharper@eco.umass.edu.