Book & Plow: Amherst College farm takes shape on campus

Last modified: Tuesday, July 02, 2013

AMHERST — Since the warm weather arrived, Peter McLean and Tobin Porter-Brown have been in the fields on Tuttle Hill in South Amherst building a greenhouse for the 45-acre farm they are starting from scratch.

“We’ve been working really hard at getting this structure built and purchasing the necessary equipment to begin preparing the fields and beds,” Porter-Brown said.

Recent apprentices at Brookfield Farm Community Supported Agriculture in South Amherst, the men were hired by Amherst College in March to farm college land on South East Street and Mill Lane. They will supervise interns at the farm, called Book & Plow, with the idea of exposing students to the origins of the food they’ll be consuming in the college dining commons.

“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.

“We truly believe this farming enterprise is not just for training farmers,” Porter-Brown added. “There’s an application and something to learn for every discipline.”

The pair have already put 12 new apple trees in the ground and 19 chickens are producing eggs. The plan is to grow 17,000 pounds of greens and herbs on about 5 acres this year, expanding to 10 to 15 acres in the near future.

They have their first two interns on hand to help.

“I was really fascinated and interested by the fact that Amherst (College) would have a farm,” said junior Luisa Santos, an anthropology major. “It’s a great initiative.”

She and Ellie Andersen, a sophomore majoring in history and Spanish, will be working alongside McLean and Porter-Brown daily from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. in June and July.

Santos, who calls herself an advocate for food justice and food politics, said knowing the source of the food she and her fellow students are served is important to her.

Andersen said agriculture has always been part of her life.

“I grew up on a farm. Sustainability has been an interest of mine for a long time,” she said.

Book & Plow will have one additional intern working this summer through the Smith College Praxis summer internship program, as well as two part-time staff. In the fall, McLean and Porter-Brown plan to have Amherst College work-study students on site.

A wide range of tasks is planned for the students, including planting, harvesting and weeding crops, designing a perennial garden, building hoop houses and conducting research in the apple orchard.

Student initiative

The idea of having a farm on college land was initiated by Amherst College students who wanted their school to support the grow-local movement.

Seniors Alex Propp and Arne Andersen, Ellie’s brother, were among those who began pushing for such a college-supported farm two years ago. College spokeswoman Caroline Hanna said their persistence resulted in the administration agreeing to lease land to farmers for a small amount and agreeing to buy a portion of food grown to be served on campus.

The requests for farmers’ proposals went out last year, with a stipulation that those hired promote “the dual goals of raising local produce and conducting educational and research programs that involve the entire college.”

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.

Situated on South East Street, the farm is less than a mile east of the main campus and will be a 10-minute walk, even shorter by bike, for students to get there.

“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.”

There also will be curriculum opportunities for faculty. McLean said Anna Martini, a professor of geology, is 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.

“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.

Rookie farmers

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 said he has extensive experience working on farms in his home state and Pennsylvania. But it wasn’t until he worked with Brookfield Farm manager Daniel Kaplan that he acquired the skills needed to run the business end of the operation.

Porter-Brown, a Northampton native, is a Hampshire College graduate who worked at Hampshire College Farm under Leslie Cox and Nancy Hanson. After he graduated in 2009, he served under Hanson as assistant manager during the harvest season. After serving as an apprentice at Brookfield for two seasons, he was co-manager of operations at Alprilla Farm in Essex last summer.

While they won’t meet the original goal of having greens ready for meals served during the commencement and reunion weekends this month, they have provided the dining commons with an initial collection of ramps, or wild leeks, that were already growing on the land. The leeks were used as part of an Iron Chef competition in April at Valentine Hall. Six student teams created an entree, main course and dessert using the produce. McLean was one of the judges.

The summer crops will include lettuce, Asian greens, collards 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.

He said he and Porter-Brown plan to have all the crops 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 diverse.

Twenty additional acres on Mill Lane will become the primary vegetable area because it is flat and has good soil, while the other 25 acres on South East Street not part of the core field will be used for other purposes. The “lower field” on South East Street 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. It may be another two years before pigs and beef cows join the farm.

After they finish building the 30-by-96-foot greenhouse that will also serve as a washing station for the vegetables, a storage shed and office will be built on site.

The farmers hope to sell excess vegetables to Smith and Hampshire colleges and also anticipate direct mailings about the farm’s produce to faculty and staff. They’re considering providing winter CSA shares next year if there’s enough product.

Assistant grounds supervisor Mark Uchneat said the college is pleased with how things are going.

“They’ve done a great job of starting up and bringing stuff to the table,” he said.

Porter-Brown said the farmers are happy as well.

“The fact that Amherst College has shown interest in supporting a farm shows larger movement to food and sustainability that will only continue,” he said.


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