Safe Ground

Smokey House Center; Natasha is third from left
Smokey House Center; Natasha is third from left

Written By

Katie Ross

Written on

September 01 , 2008

Smokey House Center is not your run-of-the-mill farm by any means. And Natasha was the first to teach me this in no uncertain terms.

A fight makes it sound too violent. A confrontation sounds too technical. I’d call it a challenge. My run-in with Natasha was definitely the first big challenge I faced as a crew leader at Smokey House. She was the first kid to test me, the first to stand her ground. I’m pretty sure she didn’t like me at first, and when Natasha doesn’t like you, you better watch out.

But let’s rewind. I’m pretty sure Tim told me about Natasha during my first job interview. I was trying out for a position doing farm and forestry work with at-risk high school kids at Smokey House, a nonprofit organization and farm embedded at the base of Dorset Peak in Danby. The Center’s mission is to teach academic, social, and workplace skills to at-risk teens through hands-on forestry and farm work. During the school year kids go to their regular schools in the morning and come to work on the farm in the afternoon, getting paid minimum wage and getting school credit. Definitely a good deal if I’ve ever heard one. And the veggies, meat, syrup, yarn, and charcoal from the farm are sold through a CSA and at the Rutland Farmers’ Market.

I knew I would love living and working here because even on that day in late November—a month that is usually my least favorite because it’s so bleak and brown—the place managed to be beautiful, with snow creeping halfway down Dorset Peak. At the end of my all-day interview, which included herding sheep and cutting down Christmas trees, Tim, who is in charge of the youthwork program, told me about Natasha. “She plays football and is on the wrestling team and does ballet and is way tougher than any of the guys here. She is way hard core.”

I would soon get to know her well, as Natasha was part of my first six-member youthwork crew. My tasks as a crew leader were daunting. Over the course of a year I had to take care of the farm’s eight cows, harvest four cords of firewood from my assigned woodlot, and tap and collect sap from 300 maple trees in the sugarbush during sugaring season. I had little farm experience; during that first year, mine was more like a learning mountain than a learning curve.

The half-dozen teenagers who would be helping me complete my list of tasks each had a story that was either heartbreaking or inspiring, depending on your view. The kids who work at Smokey House come here tagged with a number of different labels. “At-risk” is the most common. “Disadvantaged” is the more politically correct term. “Pre-employable” is perhaps the most descriptive.

On any given day working with a crew, you’re bound to get an impressive amount of work done, but you’re also bound to find yourself in the middle of an argument between two crew members, and it’s likely you’ll have to take a break from weeding the summer squash to talk with a kid about issues he’s having at home.

Or you may have to just stand your ground, as I did during my first “challenge” with Natasha. It was a winter day, probably in January or February, and I was explaining Smokey House’s new rule for operating the wood splitter: anyone loading the splitter was supposed to keep their hands away from the wood on the machine as the wedge moved forward and split the log in half. But Natasha simply refused to follow the rule: “No way! We’ve always been able to touch the edges of the wood if we’re careful.” I’ve never been big on confrontation, and to have a student so brazenly challenge my authority was unsettling. But I held my ground and she held hers. That day Natasha stormed away to the office, but she learned that I wasn’t going to budge when it came to safety. The next time we used the splitter she followed the rule, if grudgingly.

The relationship between Natasha and I has improved since then, and her relationship with the Center has been just as positive. Due to family issues, she is currently in foster care, and Smokey House is a consistent place for her to go, a solid rock in a life of waves. “I’ve always felt safe here,” she told me one day. “I have a lot of home issues but at Smokey House I can just chill out.” She makes money, works with responsible adults, and learns some skills in the process. And even though I’d love to think that Natasha and the other kids I work with will all become farmers or foresters, that’s just not the reality. While they do gain land-based skills that they’ll always be able to fall back on, such as knowing how to split wood by hand or knowing when a pea is plump enough to sell at the Rutland Farmers’ Market, what we’re really giving them are the soft skills needed to hold down a ‘real’ job and work comfortably with other people.

When I recently asked Natasha about the best thing she gets out of Smokey House, she answered without skipping a beat. “I have a lot of trouble with my anger. Smokey House helps me deal with people I don’t like.” Signs of her improvement are popping up everywhere. One day this summer she helped the sheep crew trim hooves. Laura, the crew leader, was blown away by the leadership she showed that day, demonstrating to other students how to trim hooves and being patient with the other, less-experienced girls. And I witnessed Natasha’s growth firsthand as I saw her charging down the rugby field. Colleges have already started talking to her about playing rugby for them when the time comes, and if she sticks with it and carries with her the lessons she’s learned while working sheep and collecting maple sap at Smokey House, I think rugby will be her ticket to a solid future.

Long after Natasha leaves Smokey House, I’ll always remember her wide-as-her-face grin the time she slipped in the mud in the sugarbush. Or how eloquently she raved about Smokey House when Senator Bernie Sanders visited last winter. Or how excited she was after swimming all the way across Little Rock Pond when we took some of the girls camping a few weeks ago. She is just one of hundreds of kids whose lives have collided with a different kind of chaos as they pack bags of spinach and radishes into weekly CSA shares, herd cows down the road to a new pasture, deliver newborn lambs into the world, and haul gallons of sap to the sugarhouse. It’s pretty cool that these kids make it possible for us to run a farm, but it’s even cooler to see the way they grow by leaps and bounds here, knowing this place can be a refuge.

Photo courtesy of Smokey House Center; Natasha is third from left.

About the Author

Katie Ross

Katie Ross

Katie Ross is the gardener and farm assistant at The Putney School in Putney. She feels lucky that, in addition to getting paid to grow vegetables and teach, her job often requires her to do things like make ice cream, play “Capture the Flag,” visit local farms, and sing.

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