By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
Print Story | Email Story
Jane Swift shows some of the potpourri she has produced from cuttings from around the farm.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — As she shows off the potpourri produced from cuttings around her Henderson Road farm, Jane Swift can joke that she has the best smelling barn in the Berkshires.
"We're so lucky to live here," she says. "This is all stuff I just picked. People probably think I'm crazy. I go around sniffing stuff on the farm."
In the near future, Swift hopes to add some new smells to the mix.
She is working to transform the century-old family farm into the Cobble Hill Farm Education and Rescue Center.
And by the late fall, she hopes to start filling that barn with rehabilitating fauna to go along with the flora that produce the fragrant mixtures currently drying in the barn.
"[The education and rescue center] was inspired in part by my husband [Charles "Chuck" T. Hunt III], who died in December, who had a love of this place and animals and the impact that working outdoors and with animals could have on people," Swift explained while giving a tour of the 25-acre property.
"More importantly, Chuck and I had a set of shared values about the importance of agriculture and a love for this part of the Berkshires. I grew to love this farm as much as he did throughout his life so, when he died and with my decades of advocacy for family farms and our joint ownership of this place for a couple of decades, I knew I had to figure out a way to keep it in the family and keep it in productive agriculture of some kind.
"It was going to require me to do things differently."
Swift has a busy life off the farm, including as the president and executive director of a Boston non-profit focused on educational innovation. In addition to looking at ways to keep the farm viable after her husband’s passing, she needed regular help at home caring for the akita that she and Chuck adopted during the pandemic.
"I reached out to Renee [Dodds]," Swift said, referring to a longtime family friend and owner of Pittsfield doggy daycare Love Us and Leave Us. "I asked her: Would you ever have use for a really large, empty building and do you know anybody who could take on house-sitting responsibilities when I'm away.
"As luck would have it, she had been thinking about this issue of a rescue because of the need."
Rescue centers in the mode of Cobble Hill are rare in the region, Swift said. The nearest ones she knows of are in Central Vermont or in the Pioneer Valley.
Unlike other, nearer facilities, Cobble Hill will not be a animal sanctuary, a difference that Swift explained.
"Kim Wells from East Mountain Farm uses part of our land for his beef cows, and there are usually chickens down there," she said. "That's awesome and something we wish to continue, which is why, by the way, we're a rescue and not a sanctuary.
"A sanctuary implies you're saving animals from being food sources. That's not our gig. We were thoughtful about education and rescue. We support all kinds of farmers, including those who produce food. There are some animal sanctuaries that are rescuing those kinds of cows. That's not our thing."
Swift and Dodds hope to provide a service for animals in need.
"I've always wanted to do something more to help out animals that need help," Dodds said. "We've fostered puppies before for rescues. I was on the board for a local shelter. I'm the chair of the Animal Control Commission in Pittsfield.
"There's always a real need for these kinds of things. There are so many animals that need help, and a lot of places don't have the means to take care of everything."
One member of Dodds' team at Love Us and Leave Us recently earned a wildlife animal rehabilitation license, which will help keep Cobble Hill staffed and ready to accept a wide variety of animal types — from wild mammals to turtles to farm animals.
The plan is to keep the farm staffed round the clock, relying on the in-law apartment in Swift's home on the property plus the efforts of volunteers, who Dodds anticipates training.
"I think it will be a mix of some of my staff, which is obviously excited to help out, and I do have a woman volunteering with us who heard about it and wants to help," she said. "Ad we'll bring in volunteers from other places as well.
"In the current climate with having trouble finding people to do all the jobs we need to do, we'll probably take all the help we can get. Hopefully, this is the kind of work that will give people a little spark of joy in their lives — to take care of animals and be in a beautiful space."
Swift hopes to spark a different kind of joy through the other side of Cobble Hill: education.
The second half of the center's mission dovetails with the former governor's post-political professional life.
"I'm going to sound old and old-fashioned now, but one of the things my husband and I noticed, even as we were raising our own kids here, is there are very few places where kids can just run around outside anymore and explore," Swift said. "And it's a healthy, good thing for kids to do.
"I have vivid memories of my daughter Lauren out in the fields, when we had a lot of horses out in the field, before she went to school, just throwing hay with her dad.
"There's something very healthy about growing up that way. It's good for kids."
Swift said she hopes to provide a measure of that connection to farm life for future generations of young people.
As soon as this fall, she hopes to begin hosting school groups for teacher-led lessons on the farm.
"I want to be a resource for local educators to use to do programs that align with their curriculum," Swift said. "There's a lot of research that outdoor education, experiential education and skills-based education that leads pathways where kids can discover what they're good at is extraordinarily positive for their development."
That is where the potpourri comes in.
"One of the things I tried with some friends' kids this week was making potpourri," Swift said. "One of the things you can imagine for kids of different ages is identifying plants but also understanding volume and weight and measurements. That could be a great lesson, and it's fun and good for your mental health and spirits to be out and gathering."
Down the road, she envisions programs and activities led by Cobble Hill Farm personnel. Revenue from the education programs will help keep the entire operation going.
"This [education] piece should be the programming that is self-sustaining and hopefully generates some revenue," Swift said. "And then the rescue, hopefully, will be supported by donations. And we'll do events to the extent we need to support the overall operation. That's the business plan."
Swift said she has gotten numerous requests over the years to host weddings at the farm, and a planned pad for a tent on land adjacent to the barn will make it easier to host events.
On Aug. 20 and 21, Cobble Hill Farm will hold a tag sale.
Swift said she and her husband never talked specifically about using the farm for animal rescue work, but the new venture fits into the vision they both shared for the property that was passed down through his family for generations.
"Going back to when I ran for state Senate, I've always been about excellence in education, preserving agriculture and open space and small businesses in the community," she said. "And throughout my time in public service and, since then, as a family, we've been able to live out those values in a variety of different ways. ... We've done it in different ways and quietly. Chuck was anchoring the small business and open space and agriculture piece while I was out doing education on a national and, more recently, more on a statewide and regional basis.
"In some ways, these activities — both the education and the rescue piece — are a way to integrate those things we both have always cared about in a way that's relevant to the needs of the community now."
More information about Cobble Hill Farm Education and Rescue Center is available at chfarm.org.
Tags: animals, wildlife,