Amherst College has first campus farm
AMHERST — A new farm at Amherst College will be a place for students to get hands-on experience in agriculture while growing fresh produce for the campus dining commons.
Peter McLean and Tobin Porter-Brown, both recent apprentices at Brookfield Farm Community Supported Agriculture in South Amherst, have been selected to manage 45 acres of college land on South East Street and Mill Lane collectively known as Tuttle Hill.
“It’s a very exciting time to be working with academic institutions since there is a lot of interest in food and sustainability,” Porter-Brown said.
“We’re not just growing produce, we’re having students come out to the farm and will have faculty bring their students out there,” McLean said.
Under a lease agreement signed with the college, McLean and Porter-Brown are in the midst of getting close to five acres of land at the Book & Plow Farm ready for growing season.
This “core field,” as Porter-Brown describes it, will include plantings of a number of vegetable crops, with construction of a greenhouse and washing station in the next couple of months and later a storage shed and office. Located on South East Street, the farm is less than a mile east of the main campus and will be 10-minute walk for students to get there.
The idea of having a farm on college land was initiated by Amherst College students supporting the grow-local movement who said they wanted to know where their food was coming from.
Alex Propp and Arne Andersen, both seniors, said they were among students who began pushing for such a college-supported farm during their sophomore year. Working with administrators, and getting support from those who prepare the meals at Valentine Hall, the requests for proposals finally went out last spring, with a stipulation that the farmers promote “the dual goals of raising local produce and conducting educational and research programs that involve the entire college.”
College spokeswoman Caroline Hanna said persistence led to the administration agreeing to lease the land for a small amount and making arrangements to buy a certain portion of food that could be served on campus. Hanna said the precise amount for the lease was unavailable Friday.
Propp said because almost every student is on the meal plan, even those who never go to the farm will benefit through better food shipped from just 1,500 yards away.
“At the most basic level most of the produce from the farm will go to the dining commons,” Propp said. “Farm to table right on campus is pretty cool.”
This will be the first time Porter-Brown, 26, and McLean, 27, have run a farm on their own.
“Growing food for a community is something I’ve always thought about and talked about,” McLean said.
Originally from Toledo, Ohio, McLean trained as an apprentice at Brookfield Farm in Amherst. While he has extensive experience on farms in Ohio and Pennsylvania, he said it wasn’t until working with Brookfield manager Daniel Kaplan that he learned about the skills needed to run a farm as a business.
Porter-Brown, a Northampton native, is a Hampshire College graduate who worked at Hampshire College Farm under Leslie Cox and Nancy Hanson and after graduating served under Hanson as assistant manager during the harvest season. His most recent endeavor was as co-manager of operations at Alprilla Farm in Essex last summer.
They are starting small, and hope to have enough greens ready for meals served during the commencement and reunion weekends this spring. The summer crops will include cutting lettuce, Asian greens, collars and kale, while in the fall there will be cucumbers, peppers, winter squash, pumpkins, beets, cabbage and carrots.
“We’re working with the dining commons to try to find out how much they can take and what things they need,” McLean said.
“In a way this is contract growing for them,” Porter-Brown said. “We’re developing crops for what we think they can use.”
He said the details of what the dining commons will need haven’t been worked out. They are also making sure that all crops can be picked by hand.
“Right now, we’re focused on growing labor-friendly produce,” McLean said.
The remaining acreage will initially be cover crops and hay, Porter-Brown said. But as time goes on, the farm will become more varied.
Twenty additional acres on Mill Lane will become the primary vegetable area because it is flat and has good soil, while the other 20 acres on South East Street not part of the core field will be used for other purposes. The “lower field” will have more greenhouses and Tuttle Hill will be turned into an orchard or livestock grazing areas because the land is too steep for vegetable crops.
The farmers would like to sell excess vegetables to Smith and Hampshire colleges and also anticipate direct mailings to faculty and staff. They said they might start winter CSA shares next year if there’s enough product.
“In our first year it might not be a lot of public interface,” Porter-Brown said.
Book & Plow Farm will have four interns working this summer who are being accepted through the Pioneer Valley Citizens Summer Program at Amherst College and the Smith College Praxis Summer Internship. In the fall, McLean and Porter-Brown plan to have work study students from Amherst College on site.
There also will be curriculum opportunities for faculty. McLean said Anna Martini, a professor of geology, are planning to use the farmland to show students how to site a well. Propp said another professor would like to use the land to demonstrate to students the right soil for growing vineyard crops.
The farm’s name contains the two elements of the town seal.
“The idea came from both an education operation and an agricultural operation,” Porter-Brown said. “There’s a nice duality to that.”
He said a logo design contest will be held later this month. They will be asking for submissions from the entire Five College community.
“The fact that Amherst College has shown interest in supporting a farm shows larger movement to food and sustainability that will only continue,” Porter-Brown said.