Drawing of two people, one holding a dog and the other holding a chickenBy Matt GoodSmith ’15

Volume XXXVI, Issue 1, October 4, 2013

 Though Book & Plow Farm was created only last spring, its presence on campus has grown rapidly. The two full-time farmers, Tobin Porter-Brown and Peter McLean, have been working tirelessly to get the farm off the ground. This fall, the farm has provided Val with kale, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and other fresh organic produce. As its name suggests, Book & Plow has two main functions within the campus community: to provide novel educational opportunities as well as fresh, local, organic produce for the students and faculty of Amherst College. However, the farm is an independently run operation, which makes its close relationship with Amherst College unique.

Although it may appear to the outside observer that the farm is owned and operated by Amherst College employees, that is not the case. Indeed, when Amherst College was considering establishing a farm on campus, the College decided that it did not want to deal directly with the farm’s day-to-day operations. Thus, Amherst chose to jumpstart Book & Plow as a separate for-profit entity. The farm sells its vegetables to the College at wholesale prices consistent with prices of local organic produce. Any vegetables that it does not sell to the College are sold to local businesses such as High Horse, Chez Albert, and Arise. The farm has also sold produce to Mount Holyoke College and to Hampshire College. The farmers work on Amherst College property, for which Amherst has granted them a renewing lease. Amherst has in the past leased out its land to other farmers, but it offered Book & Plow Farm a reduced rate. In addition, the College has provided capital and manpower to establish the initial infrastructure of the farm.

The farm, then, is essentially a for-profit business that is directly endorsed and supported by Amherst College. This type of relationship between a profit-making entity and an academic institution is rather out of the ordinary. A parallel can be drawn between the Book & Plow farm’s relationship with Amherst College and the College’s relationship with All College Laundry and All College Storage. All College Laundry and All College Storage are, like the farm, standalone business ventures directly endorsed by the College. However, this relationship has time and time again been ridiculed by students, many of whom decry the services as overpriced. In addition, many students have responded negatively to the College’s campus-wide emails promoting the services.

Why doesn’t the farm, which is also a separate profit-making business, face this sort of criticism? The answer, I think, lies in the farm’s unique, mutually beneficial relationship with the College. In return for a guaranteed market, cheap land prices, and infrastructure development from the College, the farm is beneficial for students and faculty both materially and immaterially.

First of all, the existence of a farm on campus is a great source of publicity for the College and strengthens Amherst’s commitment to being environmentally friendly. Indeed, the College painstakingly acknowledges the origins of any and all produce from the farm that it uses in the dining hall or at larger gatherings such as the recent Lives of Consequence campaign luncheon. However, the commitment to buying local produce is not a new phenomenon. Dining Services has bought produce from local farmers for years, through organizations such as Squash Inc. in Belchertown, which serves as a middleman between farmers in the Pioneer Valley and potential buyers. Through the relationship with Book & Plow, however, Dining Services has been able to expand the amount of local produce it can offer to the student body, and skip the middleman in the process. And we students could not be more thrilled about this expansion: The produce is fresh, healthy, and delicious.

The farm is also a great resource for students interested in learning about sustainable farming practices, or for students who just want to do a little bit of work in the great outdoors. The farmers are always happy to work with volunteers, and volunteering there is a great way to get involved and to get your hands a little dirty. Several sports teams, including Women’s Cross Country, have volunteered together on the farm. Also, Book & Plow has recently established a work-study program for a small number of students, and will be offering paid summer internships to interested students from Amherst and Smith. In addition to opportunities for working in the field, the farm provides many valuable research opportunities. Professor Anna Martini of the Geology department has been doing hydrogeology and biogeochemistry research with students on the farm; it is also currently hosting a two-year long experiment about bees for a graduate student from the University of Vermont. As the farm expands, these types of opportunities will grow as well.

What really distinguishes the farm from other profit-making enterprises, however, is its attitude towards its work. Although the farm is their livelihood, making money seems to be the last thing on the farmers’ minds. Tobin and Pete are incredibly friendly; you get the feeling that they truly care about providing produce and educational opportunities for the College. This commitment to the campus community produces a set of immaterial benefits that makes the farm a truly special place. I got a taste of these benefits when volunteering on the farm last week. As I drove up to the fields and started weeding with Tobin and a few other students, I felt an indescribable feeling of contentment. I wasn’t giving my free labor to help two guys make some money. Rather, I was contributing to the sustainable production of food that would eventually enrich my campus community, and as I did so I felt blissful and fulfilled. I can’t wait to get back out into the fields, hang out with two awesome farmers and a couple of like-minded students, and grow some food.