“Don’t drop the beet!” Farmer Pete reminded the Women’s Cross Country team, two years ago, as we literally harvested beets on our volunteer day. People near him laughed a little, and smiled, genuinely enjoying an early autumn Sunday morning spent working on the farm. He made more vegetable jokes — I think one including Lady Gaga, and one involving a turnip — but the minutiae are lost on me now. What I do remember clearly is the wonderful presence of the farmers, the newfound positivity of the team and the free fresh-cut flowers we thought we were rewarded with (really they’re free for anyone on campus, anytime in the fall before they’re gone).
Book & Plow’s presence on campus is much more prevalent than the vegetables that are grown organically on the farm, served at Val and sold to households in Western Massachusetts. The process by which this food is planted, watered, cared for, harvested and gathered, occurs by the combined effort of the farm’s staff and student volunteers. This community, widened and publicized by the events the farmers participate in and put on constitute an entire node in the Amherst campus network.
The idea to have a farm close to campus that could sustainably supply vegetables for Val and the greater community was initiated by a group of Amherst students, led by Arne Andersen ’13 and Alex Propp ’13, in 2010. As a result of a few years of conversations between Amherst staff, alumni, students and faculty, the goal of the farm became to “raise local produce and conduct educational and research programs that involve the entire College.” Finally, in late winter of 2013, the college selected two enthusiastic and ambitious farmers — now-campus celebrities Tobin Porter-Brown and Pete McLean — to develop a few acres of land and partner with the college and the community.
Thus, today the farm is only around three years old, which surprised me because of the considerable influence it has on the community and how much Book & Plow itself has grown in so little time. McLean and Porter-Brown have since added three farmers: Maida Ives, Kaylee Brow and Will Lintilhac, as well as 14 acres of vegetable and cover crops, and they plan to become certified Organic in the fall. They have established the campus favorite event Farm Fest, along with Birds and Breakfast, volunteer hours, summer internships, a work study program, the Book & Plow Constitutional and many other seasonal events throughout the year. Farmer Pete has guest starred at many Amherst community events, including the “Life Stories” lunch series and Trivia Night in the Powerhouse. Personally, I have visited the farm as a student for an environmental studies class, as a work-study intern, as a volunteer and as a part of the community for events.
It’s not just about farming. As Hannah Herrera ’17, someone who has devoted a significant amount of time to working on the farm, describes, “Book & Plow farm is one of the most unique, vibrant atmospheres at Amherst. Being surrounded by such caring, conscientious, spirited individuals during my farm shift each week has made all the difference in my experience here.”
Farmer Pete also acknowledged the importance of the farm as a space of personal and communal growth, not just that of vegetables. “I really believe that people want to connect with each other. Maybe not all of the time, but at our core, as people, we have a desire to be connected to each other in some capacity. The farm is largely a backdrop, a stage, a prop, in service to that yearning,” he explained.
McLean very humbly and modestly explains that Book & Plow is so important because it is just one facet of the Amherst campus — that this relaxed, conversational space is uniquely successful because it is paired with a more intense, academic space. “B&P has the luxury and privilege of trying to help people connect with people and the land while disconnecting from technology because it is amongst so many other entities on campus who provide similar opportunities in different ways for their participants,” he said. We are but one voice in the choir. Our voice alone wouldn’t sound that good. But in a choir, we aight!”
Last Friday, the Ailurus branch held an inter-branch event at Book & Plow. Half the time was spent planting Moulin Rouge and Autumn Beauty sunflower seeds and trimming the field of onion tops alongside a few of the farmers. The other half was spent making wood fired personal pizzas from scratch in the clay oven an alum built with his own hands, eating snacks and playing games with McLean and his dog, Foxy.
Adjacent to the oven, four tall wooden posts were set up in a dance floor-sized elevated section of the field with a lesser known Memorial Hill-like view of Western Mass. Farmer Pete told us that in the fall, Book & Plow held a Salsa & Salsa (the dance & fresh salsa made from vegetables harvested on the farm) party, and strung lights across the posts to create the space.