A tree whisperer: Chesterfield 16-year-old becomes youngest certified arborist in state

Priya McSweeney, 16,  the youngest certified arborist in Massachusetts, snuggles with a pet emu at her home in Chesterfield. “They are just the best, they are so playful and affectionate,” said McSweeney.

Priya McSweeney, 16, the youngest certified arborist in Massachusetts, snuggles with a pet emu at her home in Chesterfield. “They are just the best, they are so playful and affectionate,” said McSweeney. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Priya McSweeney, 16, the youngest certified arborist in Massachusetts, prunes a tree at her home in Chesterfield.

Priya McSweeney, 16, the youngest certified arborist in Massachusetts, prunes a tree at her home in Chesterfield. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Jim and Lisa McSweeney sit with their daughter, Priya McSweeney, 16, the youngest certified arborist in Massachusetts.

Jim and Lisa McSweeney sit with their daughter, Priya McSweeney, 16, the youngest certified arborist in Massachusetts. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Priya McSweeney, 16, the youngest certified arborist in Massachusetts, at her home in Chesterfield.

Priya McSweeney, 16, the youngest certified arborist in Massachusetts, at her home in Chesterfield. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Priya McSweeney, 16, the youngest certified arborist in Massachusetts, with a pet turkey who only lets McSweeney pick him up, at her home in Chesterfield.

Priya McSweeney, 16, the youngest certified arborist in Massachusetts, with a pet turkey who only lets McSweeney pick him up, at her home in Chesterfield. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

McSweeney plays with a pet emu at her home in Chesterfield. “They are just the best, they are so playful and affectionate,” said McSweeney.

McSweeney plays with a pet emu at her home in Chesterfield. “They are just the best, they are so playful and affectionate,” said McSweeney. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Priya McSweeney, 16, the youngest certified arborist in Massachusetts, snuggles with a pet emu at her home in Chesterfield. “They are just the best, they are so playful and affectionate,” said McSweeney.

Priya McSweeney, 16, the youngest certified arborist in Massachusetts, snuggles with a pet emu at her home in Chesterfield. “They are just the best, they are so playful and affectionate,” said McSweeney. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Priya McSweeney, 16,  with a pet emu at her home in Chesterfield.

Priya McSweeney, 16, with a pet emu at her home in Chesterfield. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Priya McSweeney, 16 with a pet turkey who only lets McSweeney pick him up, at her home in Chesterfield.

Priya McSweeney, 16 with a pet turkey who only lets McSweeney pick him up, at her home in Chesterfield. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Priya McSweeney, 16, who this spring became the youngest certified arborist in Massachusetts, prunes a tree at her home in Chesterfield.

Priya McSweeney, 16, who this spring became the youngest certified arborist in Massachusetts, prunes a tree at her home in Chesterfield. STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

Jim McSweeney of Hilltown Tree and Garden LLC  has had his daughter working alongside him since she was 11.

Jim McSweeney of Hilltown Tree and Garden LLC has had his daughter working alongside him since she was 11. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By JAMES PENTLAND

Staff Writer

Published: 05-15-2024 1:18 PM

Modified: 05-16-2024 4:22 PM


CHESTERFIELD — Being home-schooled for much of her secondary school career gives Priya McSweeney some measure of choice over how she spends her time.

Still, that alone doesn’t fully account for the 16-year-old’s expertise in the field of arboriculture, which she showed last month by passing the Massachusetts Certified Arborist examination, becoming the youngest certified arborist in the state.

For one thing, she has been working alongside her dad, Jim McSweeney, of Hilltown Tree and Garden LLC, since she was 11.

“I would go watch and learn,” she said.

That helped develop Priya’s interest in the work, to the point that she’s clear about wanting to pursue tree care as a career.

Passing the exam, though, requires some intensive studying. Along with a multiple-choice section, candidates have to be able to identify 30 trees and shrubs — out of 205 that they need to know in total — by their Latin and common names, as well as dozens of insects and pests by their common names.

The exam, which is given twice a year, encompasses all aspects of the trade, such as tree biology, safety and laws, tree planting and care, pruning, cabling and bracing, soil management and plant pathology. With 70% as the minimum passing grade, Priya scored 93%. “We’re pretty sure she’s the youngest ever,” said her mom, Lisa.

Only nine people who took the test last month achieved certification, she said.

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Her certification is considered provisional until she turns 18, according to the Massachusetts Arborists Association.

Priya McSweeney said she started studying the material in January, and worked on it six days a week until she took the test in April.

For comparison, Jim McSweeney said it took him four years of studying and working in the industry to become certified.

“There’s a very small number of certified arborists in the industry,” he said. “It generally takes years” to pass the exam.

Certification in arboriculture is voluntary, unlike a license, he said. The Massachusetts Arborists Association says the purpose “is to raise the level of public awareness as to the importance of working with trained tree service professionals, and to provide a means of self-improvement and continuing education for the certified professional.”

Priya said she first started home-schooling during COVID when she was in seventh grade. “I’m a big introvert,” she said. “I didn’t mind being alone.”

She’s a self-starter when it comes to schoolwork, supplementing her studies with occasional botany classes at Smith College. There’s also a studio on the property where she paints and draws.

She’ll almost always be found outdoors, her mother said, as often as not hanging out and sharing affection with her favorites, Kevin and Karl, the family’s two emus. She also helps take care of the turkeys, goats and the newest arrivals, chickens and ducklings.

This summer she’ll be working at a nursery in Hadley as well as putting in time with her dad’s business. “I try to put in time during the summer,” she said.

James Pentland can be reached at jpentland@gazettenet.com.