The farm-to-school initiative has grown popular in recent years, but seldom does the name fit so well as in the case of Book & Plow Farm in Amherst, MA. Here the farm has quite literally been brought to the school.
Although farming land owned by educational institutions is not a particularly new idea, (nearby University of Massachusetts started as a school of agriculture), the specifics of the arrangement make Book & Plow a unique picture of innovation in agricultural land use.
Pete McLean and Tobin Porter-Brown are the ambitious farmers that were chosen to farm several parcels of farmland owned by Amherst College, beginning this season. They named the project Book & Plow Farm, referencing the town seal of Amherst.
The process began for them when Amherst College put out a Request for Proposal in 2012 for farmers willing to develop the land into a sustainable farm. The idea came a little earlier.
About 3 years ago, two Amherst college students came up with the idea, explained Pete. Alex Propp and Arne Anderson approached the college administration with the idea that some of the food for the school’s dining hall could be provided by a farm right on campus. “It really was a very student led initiative,” he adds, “and both of the guys who started in are graduating this year. They’re really excited to see their project come to fruition.”
What started with Alex and Arne back in 2010 is now weidling it’s own sails, with Pete and Tobin at the helm. The pair met while working at nearby Brookfield Farm, one of the first CSAs in the country. Their experience there and on other farms made them attractive candidates, and they were chosen from about a dozen responses to the Amherst College RFP last fall. Months of negotiations later, they are beginning to work the land.
Unlike other campus farms, Tobin and Pete are not employed by the school. “What’s unique about the farm is that we’re our own business. We’re not salaried.” Pete went on to explain, “The school wanted to help form a business through start-up capital, set it up for success, then cut it free.”
Logistically, this means a lot of different things, which is mostly what the months of negotiations have been about. What Amherst College has offered is:
Land. Book & Plow is farming on a 5 year-lease set at $1/year. This season they will put about 6 acres in vegetable production and 8 acres in cover crop.
A market. The school will buy produce to satisfy the needs of Valentine Dining Hall, at fair market value.
Infrastructure. There is essentially nothing that resembles farm infrastructure currently, but the school has agreed to provide a greenhouse, water, electricity, a wash station, a tractor and some other equipment.
All other tools and consumables will come from the farm’s operating budget. Labor, seeds and irrigation are just some of the expenses that would fall under this category.
In exchange, the school gets the benefit of having farm fresh produce. They also will have students working as summer interns on the farm, and have Tobin and Pete for an additional 10 hours a week as educational resources. They define those hours as any time spent away from the fields.
The young farm has already been a resource for existing educational programs. A hydrogeology class did a geological survey of the land, to determine the best position to dig a well. Both the school and farm hope experiences like this will be frequent in years to come.
In addition to the immediately tangible benefits, the school will also see a reward in the agricultural development of the land. In recent years, these parcels had been rented out by the year, mostly to conventional farmers. “The ph and fertility were horrible,” says Pete, “The farmers hadn’t been interested in investing in the land.”
With the 5 year lease, The fellas at Book & Plow have just the opposite prerogative. They see the potential not just to continue to grow on the handful of acres, but to expand the operation in years to come. “The college has close to 400 acres, we found maybe 20 ideal for vegetables, but a lot of it would be ideal for livestock.”
It’s hard to tell from the first year, but a full-diet farm on Amherst College land is something that may be in the cards in years to come. This year the duo plans to stretch its market to include other area institutions.
It will be exciting to see this young project grow and evolve, and perhaps serve as an example of how community partnerships in agriculture can emerge from a little creativity and a lot of hope.