At age 84, Jean White is up early to do her chores at Holly Hill Farm in Cohasset. The 144-acre property has been in her late husband’s family for 175 years and her purpose is to preserve the non-profit organic farm with an educational mission.
People who went on this year’s First Day walk at Holly Hill Farm had the treat of being led by an older woman who is often seen feeding the animals. In the summer and fall she can be found gathering garden flowers and arranging colorful bouquets inside a barn built in 1785.
At age 84, Jean White remains a sustaining force behind the non-profit organic farm with an educational mission. The property has been in her late husband’s family for 175 years.
“Frank wanted to be sure that people understood the farm is more than just what is grown here,” she said on a cold morning as she visited Pumpkin, a 30-year-old Welsh pony, in his outdoor pen. “Frank really wanted to do something important on land that had meant so much to him and his dad; they were very close.”
Today, the 144-acre farm has several acres of planting fields, greenhouses, composting, an ice house and areas near the barns that host programs for school groups and summer camps. The gardens include one for tasting, where children plant, harvest and eat what they grow, and another for local food pantries.
Eleven years after Frank White died in 2009 of cancer at age 77, Jean White’s life centers on preserving the organic farm they started 22 years ago.
She lives in a house at the back of the property and walks or drives over to feed the animals three Nigerian dwarf goats, a Sicilian donkey, the pony and a variety of chickens, some which lay blue eggs three times a day at 8 a.m., noon and late afternoon. She usually stops by the office in the house where the farm managers, Derek Mullaney and Sofia Dobner-Pereira, live to chat with Cindy Prentice, executive director of the Friends of Holly Hill Farm.
A soft-spoken woman with alert eyes and a ready smile, White is happy to tell the farm’s story, less eager to focus on herself. She speaks with reverence for her father-in-law, Richardson White, a sculptor who specialized in horses and built the family home in 1930. For 60 years he combined sculpting with farming, building machinery and a sawmill. In 1979, he and his wife Cornelia gave the Trustees of Reservations a conservation restriction on 70 of the 144 acres that had been owned by his family since the 1840s.
“My father-in-law was a Renaissance man, incredibly bright, who never wanted to leave the farm but welcomed visitors,” White said. “He rode nightly on the trails.”
After Richard White died in 1993 at age 88, his son Frank, an educator, began learning the farm operations while working as the director of Thompson Island Educational Center.
Frank had taught for 11 years at the Groton School, where he created an Outward Bound program with Lowell schools. Both he and Jean, a 1957 Radcliffe graduate whom he met at Harvard, had a strong interest in education. Jean taught children at McLean Hospital in Belmont and then became a nurse. She cared for his mother on occasion and worked at the Visiting Nurse Association in Belmont and Watertown. She keeps her licensed practical nurse degree up to date.
In 1998, they moved to Cohasset to develop an organic operation with a focus on education. They hired an organic grower, Martin Gursky, from Nova Scotia, followed by farm managers. Jon Belber, of Scituate, came on board as education director and began working with local schools. Gardens were planted, including one for teenagers who get community service hours as they plant, weed, harvest and deliver produce to food pantries: Wellspring in Hull, Cohasset Food Pantry and Father Bill’s in Quincy.
At 84, although she is no longer “happy lifting 50 pound bags very far,” Jean’s health is good and she pitches in wherever needed. She feels fortunate her son and two daughters live in Massachusetts and are involved in the farm in different ways, as are her grandchildren. Her one luxury is music. Every Friday she takes the train into Boston for rehearsals of the Boston Symphony, sitting in the same seat her mother-in-law once used. She grew up singing in church choirs with her mother, an organist, as the director, and she sings with the Fine Arts Chorale in Weymouth.
She was born in Vermont and lived in Wellesley, where her father was school superintendent. During WWII, the family moved to rural Vermont, where White’s mother taught in a one-room schoolhouse while her father served in the Army Air Force. After the war, her father, Edwin Miner, became a prominent educator in Washington and New York. Her roots in learning run deep.
In a few weeks, she will help start the seeds in the greenhouse. Her joy in natural settings shines through in the “Field Notes” columns she writes for the Holly Hill newsletter.
“I can’t imagine being anyplace else,” she says.
Reach Sue Scheible at email@example.com, call 617-786-7044, or write The Patriot Ledger, 2 Adams Place, Suite 400, Quincy MA. 02169