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Former Goshen College professor leaves classroom for farm life

Patricia Oakley’s garden is not an ordinary one.

On her small property in downtown Goshen, there are herbs shaded by apple, cherry and pear trees. Grape vines grow across a trellis for wine. A metal hive hums with bees. A greenhouse is in progress. Oakley and her husband, Pete, who also own the house next door, combined a section of the next yard with their own. The result is a large, fenced area for plots, where tomatoes, potatoes, garlic, lettuce, blueberries and asparagus grow. There are hazelnuts, raspberry bushes and hops plants for beer. The yard is less than an acre, but not an inch of space is wasted.

“I like to plant for planting’s sake,” Oakley said. “Everything is always in some sort of process of evolution. It’s constantly changing.”

Oakley is also familiar with change. She was a professor of mathematics at Goshen College for the last 14 years, but resigned in spring 2013 to work on a local farm for a year and explore a long-harbored dream of small-scale farming. She wrote about the experience for Goshen Commons on her blog, ‘A Bit of Earth.’

“This was a little dream I had for a while but I never acted on it,” Oakley said. “I like teaching but I realized that I would never spend as much time as I needed on gardening and devote myself fully unless I quit.”

“We’re so used to being able to get anything at any time that I think people don’t always know what’s in season.”

Oakley has loved planting since she was a child, though she has “no idea where the desire came from.” She tended her own small gardens for years, and sold home-spun yarn at the Goshen Farmers Market, but always wished for more time to devote to the practices. She thought of perhaps one day owning a small farm.

After the school year ended in May 2013, Oakley left the classroom to work full-time at Clay Bottom Farm just outside of Goshen, owned by Ben Hartman and Rachel Hershberger. (Read more about Clay Bottom Farm in the summer issue of Flavor 574 Magazine.)

“I wanted more structure by working on someone else’s farm,” Oakley said. “I wanted to experience the cycle of the whole year, and the daily routine of farming to see if it was something I enjoyed doing and what I wanted to incorporate in my own garden.”

For the year, Oakley traded her indoor job to work outdoors from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, transplanting, weeding and harvesting at the farm, as well as selling its produce at Goshen Farmer’s Market. She learned to start seeds indoors, wearing insulated boots and lined overalls in the winter. She also became familiar with marketing aspects; the farm has a CSA and sells produce to area restaurants and businesses such as Dutch Maid Bakery, Constant Spring and Venturi.

Oakley’s months in the dirt brought a number of lessons. It was a welcome change, she said, to have an active occupation with “built-in exercise.”

“You’re crouching, standing up, you’re in motion, you’re receiving vitamin D from the sun, and you’re connecting with the outdoor world,” Oakley said. “You can hear birds singing, see worms in the soil. I think that is valuable.”

“Sometimes people think it’s a lot of work to start a garden – but if you just have a small plot, it doesn’t have to be daunting.”

Oakley also learned the importance of growing one’s own food.

“We’re so used to being able to get anything at any time that I think people don’t always know what’s in season,” Oakley said. “With our oil reserves being depleted, we might not always be able to ship all over the world. It’s really good for people to know what the cycle of food is.”

Her full-time work at Clay Bottom ended May 30, but she will continue to farm there in a smaller capacity and sell her own produce alongside Clay Bottom’s at the market. She will also work one day per week at Hawkins Family Farm in North Manchester.

The change in jobs also gave Oakley more time to tend her own garden. While she has no future plans to own a farm, as she has come to realize she likes city life, her next year will continue a devotion to her expansive home garden, with plans to sell produce at the market and possibly expand to sell hops to local breweries.

For those looking to grow, Oakley offers some advice: start small.

“When I first started, I just dug up a bit of lawn for a garden bed,” Oakley said. “Sometimes people think it’s a lot of work to start a garden – but if you just have a small plot, it doesn’t have to be daunting.”

There is also a reward, she said, in using homegrown produce in the kitchen, because of the time and energy invested.

“I’m much more interested in using the food I grow than food I buy,” Oakley said, pausing near her strawberry plants. “The strawberries I grow are so much sweeter than the ones you can buy in a store.”

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