Community finds sustenance on Gould Farm in Monterey


MONTEREY -- Wayne Burkhart sweeps the neat floor of the barn, where he has spent a wakeful 24 hours tending to the mother of a day-old calf. The calf himself explored the barn aisle, while his mother lay, watching him with her head raised but declining to stand up, indicating that she had finished work for the time being and deserved a day of rest.

The barn smells of cows and second-cut hay, and he is planning, in the evening light, to ted a field (turn over the cut grass, with a tractor-drawn tedder, to make sure the grass will dry) before he goes inside.

He grew up working on his father's farm -- his brother's now -- and learned to care for his herd of Ayrshire, Holstein, Jersey and crosses.

Now, as the agricultural director of Gould Farm, he works with the farm's guests and volunteers on the farm team, running the dairy, gathering eggs, caring for the chickens and pigs. He gives the guests a taste of farming, he said, of the mechanics, welding, working with animals, all the skills a farmer develops to keep the tractor going and the fences aligned.

The people on Burkhart's team often come with little experience of farming, he said. They come with patience and a willingness to try, and working with them means more than making sure the animals get fed and the fields tended -- it means teaching them to know and to do what they need to know and to do, investing in the people doing the work, and balancing the welding he needs to do with spending time with the people he can teach the welding to -- talking to them -- teaching them not only the skills, but the confidence to practice them.

On Saturdays, when most guests do not work, Doyle said, many of them will come to the farm to spend time with the cows and pigs and chickens.

They will get eggs, lift a hen, play with a calf.

One guest on the farm team looks after the chickens and knows them all by name, she said. He takes pride in it.

Farm life may lie outside their experience before they come here, said Donna Burkhart, acting executive director and Wayne's wife. So may cleaning the stairs -- even more so.

The work and the play and the people give a balance of structure that protects and provides a safe place for growth, she said.

She does not idealize the community and the way of life she cares for. Things happen, she said. Things go wrong, and things can be hard.

"Often the best experiences are the ones not planned," she said, and they help people understand how to deal with them.

"It's a constant creative tension within the community -- we want to take care of people, but not to the point that they can't take care of themselves."

Many people struggling with illness have never identified who they are as strong adults, she said.

They and people in their families want them to go back to where things got off track and to go on from there "as they should" -- and that almost never happens. They need a different track forward, she said.

They need to come to terms with something terrible that they didn't deserve and didn't ask for and isn't fair.

Guests may begin teaching their families, too, the acceptance they've come to.

She knows something of hard acceptance, firsthand.

She and Wayne came to Gould Farm some 30 years ago. They each grew up in a mennonite community and had spent four years in Africa, in the Congo, with Mennonite Central Committee, working with agricultural projects there. It was hard, she said, and wonderful.

Back in the states, they got advanced degrees, she in teaching and he in community development, planning to travel again. But while he was writing his dissertation, he heard about Gould Farm and asked to visit for research. They were looking for a gardens and grounds manager -- and they offered him the job.

When the Burkharts came to the Berkshires, their older son was in third grade and their younger son beginning kindergarten.

And in his first semester of college, their older son developed depression.

He struggled with his own illness for years, she said -- bright, loving and stubborn. They lost him just before his 22nd birthday. And they looked again at the work they have chosen.

"We looked at the community around them and said, ‘we can turn our backs, or we can do what we ask every guest to do, embrace what you cannot bear.'

"It kept us here," she said. This place "was what we needed when we wanted most to run."

And they stayed.

They have never looked back, she said. They have found a a way of service. They have found a life here.

-- Kate Abbott


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