Now in its 106th growing season, Gould Farm in the Berkshires is a homestead sanctuary that has proven the worth of agriculture as therapy.
For Priscilla Howard, rock bottom came in 2013. The Long Island, New York, school teacher and mother of two had struggled with bipolar disorder since high school, along with bouts of drug and alcohol abuse. Her marriage fell apart, she had resigned a tenured position, she lost contact with her children, and she was homeless. Then her psychiatrist committed suicide. “I’d tried every sort of therapy and medication in the world to deal with my mental health challenges, but nothing seemed to work,” she says. “It became too much to bear.”
An avid gardener, Jordan had long expressed to friends and family that any moments of solace in her life often came with her hands in the soil. With that in mind, her father and stepmother arranged for her to visit Gould Farm, a residential treatment facility in the hills of western Massachusetts for adults who are living with mental health conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder and schizophrenia. In addition to conventional psychiatric care, treatment here involves daily work on the property’s 700 acres, which include land farmed with organic-informed practices and protected forest cared for by guests and staff. “My impression was that it was a beautiful place and the people were nice, but the whole idea scared me,” says Jordan. “I saw how much the people there were struggling and it was hard to accept that I was just as sick as they were.”
Feeling like she had nothing but her pride to lose at that point, Jordan acquiesced to her family’s insistence and was admitted to Gould Farm in May 2014. Just in time for spring planting, she was one more soul in a long lineage who have come here in hopes of recovering a sense of stability and purpose in their lives.
A century earlier, in the autumn of 1913, an eccentric, fervently religious farmer named Will Gould, together with his wife, Agnes, purchased the land where Howard found herself nurturing seedlings and harvesting crops. The Goulds established a Christian-infused communal farm dedicated to helping people who were experiencing emotional or psychiatric distress to rediscover their purpose and joy in living. That eventually drew many patients from psychiatric hospitals in New York and Boston. The earliest “guests,” as residents are still referred to on the farm, bunked in a large ramshackle house, together with the Gould family. It was “…a barn-like structure with no plumbing, no lighting or heating system and no telephone,” according to one historical account, along with a roof that leaked so badly in the first winter storm that one occupant had to open an umbrella in bed to keep dry.
Brother Will, as his contemporaries called him, suffered from debilitating depression himself as a young man. But by the time he died in 1925, he had become something of a saint among New England social workers, known for his eternally sunny disposition and tendency to break out into song and dance at the drop of a hat. The Goulds’ compassionate, communal approach stood in stark relief to many rural asylums of the day — filthy, morally bankrupt institutions where the mentally ill were often essentially locked up and left to waste away. They were a good half-century ahead of their time.
“Overcrowding in institutions was the norm in mental health care until the ’60s, when things really came to a head and we as a society decided that the abuse, negligence and inhumanity of that system were no longer tolerable,” says Lisanne Finston, the current executive director at Gould Farm. “The Goulds understood that an environment of belonging and acceptance and a setting where people can engage in meaningful work are key to recovery — ideas that are now foundational in the treatment of mental illness.”
In some ways, little about the farm has changed over the past century. Group singing — a post-breakfast ritual — is one of many traditions that remain on the farm. And visitors still remark on the familial vibe: “At mealtime, it’s pretty hard to tell who is a guest and who is staff,” says Finston. The religious trappings have faded with time, and the accommodations have expanded to include private homes for employees, housing for volunteers, and three guest houses with private rooms for each guest. The agricultural operations include four acres of vegetables, roughly a dozen dairy cows and 30-plus beef cattle, plus two pigs, hayfields and a forest of maple trees for tapping. What isn’t consumed by the community feeds into several on-site enterprises, including a bakery, a café and a cheesemaking business.
With the guidance and support of staff members, guests comprise the farm’s labor force. And it’s in the fruits of that labor that the seeds of recovery are found. Such notions may seem cliché but not necessarily to someone who has been suicidal on and off for years or who struggles to discern the difference between consensual reality and recurrent hallucinations.
“Grounding techniques are an important way to manage symptoms,” says Finston. “If you are hearing voices or having racing thoughts because you have some kind of compulsive disorder, it helps to have the skills to ground yourself in the moment. It helps to bring yourself back to the present and clear your mind so that you’re able to move on with your day instead of descending into crisis mode. In a farm setting, grounding happens all day long, whether you’re planting seeds or mucking out the barn. I think it’s hard to find that same level of connection and intimacy with the world around you if you’re living in suburbia.”
Former guest Mark Little can attest to that simple truth. The 34-year-old Connecticut native’s struggles began when he was shipped off to boarding school at the age of 13. His first hospitalization for mental illness came just before high school graduation; his second – his admission to Gould Farm – came when he had one semester of college left. “Coming from an upper-middle-class environment, where success is very much defined in terms of academic accolades and external standards of success, having work that is grounded in day-to-day reality and the tangible needs of others has been very healing for me, as it has for others,” he says.
Little, who currently works as part of the farm’s maintenance staff, hopes to establish his own livestock operation. For now, remaining a part of the Gould community provides another form of grounding that is just as valuable as shoveling manure and helping to birth calves. “Mental illness is an extremely lonely experience, so to be in a place where everyone understands that — where everyone is made to feel that they are part of a bigger whole, that one’s struggles don’t define them and that we are all still people who have something to give — is a really powerful model,” he says. “It really, really is.”
Sojourns at Gould Farm last anywhere from six months to three years. When the day comes where a guests is ready to move on, arrangements can be made with a halfway house and job placement support is provided.
Moving on is by no means an indication that one is completely healed, says former guest Jose Villegas, who views recovery not so much as a destination as an ongoing journey. His career as an banker ended with a nervous breakdown in 1998. He landed at Gould in 2000 but made little progress and returned again in 2009. “The second time was the charm,” says the 57-year-old. “In my previous life as a banker, I’d lost myself—it was like Death of a Salesman. I was living in a dream. The daily routine at the farm gave me an opportunity to find myself again, to feel like I was making a meaningful contribution through my work.”
During his second stint at Gould Farm, Villegas discovered that his true passion wasn’t finance but curds — the threads of recovery finally coalesced when he began learning how make the farm’s signature Cheddar. He was eventually invited to take over as head cheesemaker, mentoring others in the alchemy of milk, enzymes and wellness. Apparently, Gould Farm Cheddar is better than ever: “The owner of the best cheese shop in the area finally told me that the flavor was good enough for him to carry it in his store,” says Villegas. “That made me so proud!”
Gould’s success has spawned numerous similar farm-based treatment programs across North America and abroad over the years. It’s also spawning new farmers. Howard has ridden waves of ups and downs since leaving the farm in January 2015, but the peaks and valleys are less jagged than before. She is now remarried and has a good relationship with her children. The staff at Gould Farm helped her land a job on a Long Island organic farm on her departure. And last spring, she made a commitment that put all of her horticultural experience and healing to the test: She signed a lease on a one-acre plot in the island’s North Fork region and began accepting CSA applications and selling at a local farmer’s market. The fledgling vegetable, herb and flower operation is called Priscilla’s Farm, now in its second season and expanding.
Howard has no intention of hiding her past behind a new identity as an organic farmer. She has started a small support group for people with mood disorders, which she hopes to tie into Priscilla’s Farm one day. “At Gould, I would joke about starting a New York branch of Gould Farm,” she says. “But seriously, I think that one of the most helpful things I can do — as someone who has come through the other side so to speak — is share my story.”