Amherst Magazine

From Farm to Table in 1,500 Yards

By Caroline J. Hanna

[Food] The farm-to-table movement has sprouted on the Amherst campus. And in the college’s case, farm-to-table equals less than a mile.

Farmers Peter McLean (left) and Tobin Porter-Brown

Two enthusiastic young farmers, Peter McLean and Tobin Porter-Brown, have signed a deal with Amherst to lease a parcel of property on the east side of campus in the area known as Tuttle Hill. The pair will cultivate about four acres of the college’s land, to start, and sell in-season produce directly to Valentine Dining Hall. The duo’s long-range goals are to operate a “full-diet,” diversified farm—producing vegetables, livestock, tree crops and grain.

“The average piece of produce travels 1,500 miles to the consumer,” says McLean, “so we feel pretty good about trucking ours 1,500 yards to the dining hall at Amherst College.”

As their operation matures, McLean and Porter-Brown would like to lease more land from the college. In the near term, though, the pair’s goal is simple: They hoped to have greenhouse-grown salad greens to harvest for Commencement and Reunion.

“We will literally be able to cut several bushels full of heads of lettuce from our field, wash them and then drive them immediately up to Val,” says Porter-Brown. “It’s as fresh as you can get.”

The farming initiative began in 2010, when a group of students, led by Arne Andersen ’13 and Alex Propp ’13, approached the college’s administration with a modest idea for a farm that could supply some vegetables to Valentine.

Now the endeavor—called Book & Plow Farm—has a relationship with the college’s dining hall that operates somewhat like community supported agriculture. Where a CSA sells shares to many customers, Book & Plow will have a few main customers, including Valentine. The college will buy what it needs from the farm at a competitive price. If the farmers have a surplus after satisfying their main customers, they can sell what’s left wherever they like.

“This farm is a genuine, for-profit business,” which sets it apart from many other college farms, says Jim Brassord, director of facilities and associate treasurer of campus services, who serves on the committee that brought the farm to campus.

It also has an educational component. For example, Associate Professor of Geology Anna Martini had undergraduates in her “Hydrogeology” course study the farmland and make a recommendation for an appropriate place to dig a well. And four students will intern at the farm this summer through the Center for Community Engagement’s Citizen Summer program. 

Photo by Rob Mattson