Campus Farm Takes Root

Submitted on Wednesday, 2/27/2013, at 10:29 AM

February 26, 2013

Article by Caroline Hanna

Photos by Rob Mattson

Tobin Porter-Brown, left, and Peter McLean
stand on land they will cultivate as part of
Book & Plow Farm

Foodies take note: The farm-to-table movement has sprouted on the Amherst campus. And in the college’s case, farm-to-table equals about three-quarters of a mile. Literally.

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, as they describe them, are to collaborate with Amherst College and other institutions in operating a “full-diet,” diversified farm—producing vegetables, livestock, tree crops and grain for the campus and Five College community—and to become an efficient and productive agricultural enterprise year-round.

As their operation grows and matures, McLean and Porter-Brown also hope to lease more land from the college and expand their offerings. In addition, they plan to forge connections with Amherst faculty and students and use the land—along with their expertise—to create curricular opportunities.

In the near term, though, the pair’s goals are decidedly more concrete: They will erect a greenhouse by late April or early May and will plant salad greens that they hope to harvest in time for Commencement and Reunion in May.

“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,” explained Porter-Brown. “It’s as fresh as you can get—it’s like having a garden in your own backyard.”

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

2013_02_22_RM_NewFarm_400x267_017Farm committee members, from left, Arne Andersen '13, Mark
Uchneat, Rebecca Wettick '14, Porter-Brown, Monica Cesinger '15, McLean and Alex Propp '13. Official Book & Plow mascot Ella
investigates in the foreground.
The seeds of the initiative, which McLean and Porter-Brown christened Book & Plow Farm (a nod to the Town of Amherst’s seal), began germinating several years ago with a handful of Amherst students. Led by Arne Andersen ’13 and Alex Propp ’13, the group first approached the college’s administration in 2010 with a modest idea for a farm that could supply some of Dining Services’ vegetable needs. Several years and many discussions later, a passionate committee made up members of many parts of the campus community—including students Monica Cesinger ’15, Deidre Nelms ’13 and Rebecca Wettick ’14; alumnus Bob Saul ’80; Samuel Morse, the Howard M. and Martha P. Mitchell Professor of the History of Art and Asian Languages and Civilizations; Molly Mead, director of the Center for Community Engagement; and, most recently, Mark Uchneat, assistant supervisor of grounds—issued a request for proposals from farmers wishing to lease a plot of campus land with “the dual goals of raising local produce and conducting educational and research programs that involve the entire College.”

About a dozen farmers submitted proposals, and just a few were brought back to campus, said Andersen, who works with his mother, Liz Dibble Andersen ’81, brother Charlie Andersen ’10 and sister Ellie Andersen ’15 on his family’s community-supported agriculture (CSA) enterprise outside of Philadelphia. McLean and Porter-Brown easily stood out.

Both young men, for example, have been farming for several years, said Andersen. McLean gained hands-on experience at a dairy farm in Belize and at the Audubon Society in New York, among other places. Porter-Brown worked on the campus farm at his alma mater, Hampshire College; helped build a student greenhouse there; and went on to hold positions at the Smith College Botanic Garden, where he played a role in setting up a native arboretum. Porter-Brown and McLean met at Brookfield Farm CSA in Amherst, where they apprenticed together. They share a passion for being outdoors and growing good, healthy food. Through their own experiences in the Pioneer Valley, they have strong relationships with the local community. And perhaps most importantly, both men immediately connected with Amherst students.

“What we saw in Peter and Tobin are two incredibly energetic, incredibly dedicated people,” said Andersen. “What they proposed—like farming generally, I guess—is going take a lot of work. But they are thrilled to be doing what they are doing. And they want to share their knowledge with Amherst students, which is a must in our book.”

Andersen explained that Book & Plow has established a relationship with the college’s dining hall that operates much like a CSA. Where a CSA sells shares to many customers, Book & Plow will have a few main customers, including Valentine. McLean and Porter-Brown will work closely with the Dining Services staff to determine the institution’s dietary needs, and the college will buy what is needed from the farm at a competitive price. If McLean and Porter-Brown have a surplus after satisfying these main customers, they can sell what’s left wherever they like, perhaps at one of the many farmers’ markets in the area.

“This farm is a genuine, for-profit business,” said Jim Brassord, director of facilities and associate treasurer of campus services, who serves on the farm committee. This sets it apart from many other college farms. Brassord said institutions as different as Hampshire, Iowa State and Vassar College, to name a few, have farms associated with them. But Book & Plow’s proximity to the dining hall and its business model make it different. “It’s independent from Amherst [College], but it is also a partner of the college’s that is operating on the school’s land. What’s wonderful is that both the institution and the enterprise benefit.”

Also benefitting are Amherst professors and students. On the faculty side, “we’re already starting to see connections forming completely independently of us,” said Brassord, citing Professor Anna Martini, who is having undergraduates in her “Hydrogeology” course study the farmland and make a recommendation for an appropriate place to dig a well. “It’s really exciting to see it all happening.”

Students say they will learn new skills that they wouldn’t normally learn at Amherst, such as sustainable farm practices. And many, according to Andersen and Propp, are champing at the bit to become involved. McLean and Porter-Brown are currently taking applications for four students to intern at the farm this summer through the CCE’s Citizen Summer program and are hoping to sign on one more via Smith College’s Praxis Internship initiative.

“It’s been really exciting to see it all come together,” said Propp. He will graduate before seeing the farm in full action, but he feels confident that it will be in good hands with Cesinger, Wettick and other students when he’s gone. “It’s become so much bigger and better than we ever thought. It’s nice to be leaving something like this behind.”

Cesinger, a biology major from Atlanta with an interest in sustainable agriculture and agricultural science, shares that sense of legacy: “I really love the idea of starting something and seeing it flourish,” she said. “One day, I’ll be able to bring my kids back to Amherst and show them something that has been growing since I left. It’s such a great feeling.”

For McLean and Porter-Brown, all of this is music to their ears. They speak of having a pick-your-own plot for members of the college and town community to come and experience the farm, and of someday planting an orchard or raising livestock, among other distant goals.

“This is just an incredible opportunity for us and, I hope, Amherst College,” said Porter-Brown on a recent walk around the farm plot. “Starting a farm on a campus like this is really ideal—Amherst has provided us with so much support and help, and I really do feel confident it will pay off in the long run for all parties involved.”



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