Web Extras for "Farmers & Activists Stage a Plate-Changing Revolution"

[Extras associated with the summer 2010 feature article in the Mount Holyoke Alumnae Quarterly magazine, by Hannah M. Wallace ’95]

Reap the benefits of the ideas sprouting from our alumnae farmers and farm activists article. No weeding required; just reading…

Farming Resources with Alumnae Connections


  • Added Value (Red Hook, Brooklyn, NY, where Kristen Schafenacker ’05 is the farm manager and agricultural programs coordinator)
  • Northland Sheep Dairy (Marathon, NY, started and formerly run by Jane Barber North ’60)
  • Stone Soup Farm (Belchertown, MA; Annie Sullivan-Chin ’08 delivers Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares by bike for the farm)
  • The Mount Holyoke Student Gardening Initiative, also known as Crops for Closer Community, is an initiative of the Mount Holyoke Food Justice Society, a student run organization, as well as the Center for the Environment, with support from the Environmental Studies Department.


  • Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference (to be held at Brooklyn College (NY) in November 2010; Bilen Berhanu ’03 is on the conference steering committee.)
  • Chemonics (Meredith Bambrick ’05 is an associate at this USAID contractor.)
  • GreenThumb (Bilen Berhanu ’03 is the outreach coordinator there, providing technical and material support to urban gardeners in New York City.)
  • Shelburne Farms’ Sustainable Schools Project (Sarah Kadden, ’01 is changing the landscape of cafeteria food at public schools in Burlington, VT,  via this project.)
  • Sustainable Connections (Whatcom County, WA, Eva Agudelo FP’08 works for this network of local, independently owned businesses.)
  • WhyHunger (Siena Chrisman ’99  works  at this New York  City nonprofit, which promotes sustainable, community-based solutions to hunger and poverty.


  • Sowing the Seeds of Change in Chicago (Cassandra West ’79 coedits this blog, which documents Chicago’s urban agriculture movement.)
  • Inn at Weathersfield (Jane Lewis Sandelman ’84 runs a farm-to-table restaurant at this southern Vermont inn.)
  • Alison Grantham ’08, who  directs all aspects of the Rodale Institute’s soil-focused organic agriculture research program, shares a visit to her kitchen with The Huffington Post.

Resources for New Farmers

  1. Find a farmer mentor through an organization such as Farm Aid, which has a farmer resource network, or Sustainable Connections.
  2. Download the free guidebook for aspiring farmers at Greenhorns, a nonprofit whose mission is to recruit, promote, and support young farmers in America.
  3. Sign up for a business-development course such as the USDA-funded Empowering Beginning Women Farmers in the Northeast. Online classes and webinars are available via the Women’s Agricultural Network.
  4. If you’re married, it’s smart if one member works off-farm (even if only part-time) so that you and your family have health insurance.
  5. Interested in starting an urban farm or garden? Check out Canada’s Office of Urban Agriculture or volunteer at a local community garden or urban farm such as Will Allen’s Growing Power in Milwaukee.

How to “Eat the View” in Your Area

“Eat the view” means consuming locally produced food, in season. One way lots of folks do this is through a CSA. To find out more about these Community Supported Agriculture programs or to find a CSA (also known as “farm shares”) near you, visit Local Harvest. http://www.localharvest.org/csa/.

Raising Peonies in Maine, Ranching in Iowa, and Other First-Person Alumnae Stories

  • Shawn Reilly ’85: Growing Self-Sufficiency

My husband and I just moved onto his family’s 125+ year-old unused ranch land in Iowa. Well, what hasn’t been sold off that is—about 140 acres. We have planted a 65′ x 45′ organic garden to feed us and our two homeschooled children. I varied the plantings to successively produce through the summer and fall a wide array of different vegetables.

We have just broken ground on an energy-efficient house to use geothermal, wind, and solar power which my husband is building himself. He used to build huge energy-sucking ski houses.

My in-laws all came through the farm crisis when industrialization put the small farmer out of business. It’s kind of crazy to them that we are taking it up again, willingly. But my father-in-law is very happy we want to be stewards of what is left of his family land.

We showed our kids (eight and six) Food Inc., and they are taking up the cause as well. My son is designing a chicken coop that will have a runner into the garden. My daughter wants goats and sheep. My husband killed a deer for most of our meat this past winter. I spent two years at Gourmet magazine, went to culinary school, and worked in Boston as a cook, so homemade food is our norm.

I am definitely an advocate for us to stop poisoning our children with processed beige food filled with corn by-products, but I have to be careful with whom I discuss my views, as nearly every piece of land here has industrialized corn, dairy, or hog farms on it. It is the way of life here. They see fresh vegetables as a garnish not a meal, and the idea of not using pesticides is completely foreign to most of them.

  • Marion Bierweiler Schafer ’71: Plenty of Peonies

My business is Peonies of the Coös Riviera (www.criv.com), located in NH’s most economically depressed county, between the White Mountains and the Canadian border. After graduating from MHC in 1971, then graduate school, I came to this area to teach. For the next 34 years I taught English in local high schools and small colleges. I came here to Dalton, NH, in 1977 after purchasing ten acres of second-growth forest, where my husband and I hand-built the small log cabin I still live in.

I stopped teaching in 2007 to resume the freelance writing career I’d set aside in order to teach and raise a family. Selling peonies three months of the year is a wonderful, outdoor counterpoint for the indoor work I do the other nine months.

The property had along one side an acre-strip of open land. For about ten years this strip pastured a herd of dairy goats that produced the family’s milk and cheese and a vegetable garden that produced about half our food. As the family grew and changed, I began thinking about what I might produce that would pay the property taxes, keep me reasonably fit as I age, and motivate me to spend the sunniest days of the year outdoors.

In the meantime I had gotten interested in recreational gardening and discovered that peonies require a period of cold-weather dormancy in order to bloom. Since the amount of open land here is limited, I needed to grow something of relatively high value, and I wanted to be able to do it by hand—without the trouble and expense of gas-guzzling farm equipment. As I learned more and more about peonies, I realized that the per-plant value of peonies, which have not yet been mass-produced through industrial tissue culture, is relatively high, which meant that I could maximize the potential income from small fields maintained by hand, organically.

In 1996 I cleared the fields, laid out propagation beds, and created a display garden next to the road, where I hang a sign during bloom season. Because peonies require several years to establish themselves and bloom, I purchased more than a hundred different cultivars in stages, teaching an extra course or two at night to cover the costs of the plant-stock. I also compromised my anti-equipment stance, buying a small rototiller to weed the propagation gardens and a lawn mower to maintain paths among the display beds.

Over the next ten years, when the display plants began to bloom, I opened the garden to the public during bloom season, selling both potted peony plants in the spring and bare-root divisions in early fall. I advertise locally and online, and I occasionally travel with a computerized slide-show I created for garden-club presentations. This has increased the customer base and given me an opportunity to spread the good word about peonies. I also donate peonies to public gardens, which help educate people about the amazing diversity of the genus paeonia.

These days I spend winters on indoor, scholarly projects and begin getting ready for the peony season as weather permits. I open the garden to visitors when the bloom season begins and I close it by July 4, just as hot weather is finishing off the flowers.

In late August I begin harvesting from propagation beds the divisions that people have ordered when visiting the garden the previous spring. Depending on the season, I dig, divide, label, and package between 75 and 150 bare-root divisions, which people return to the garden to pick up. Occasionally I fill mail orders, but most customers choose to pick up their divisions, which I guarantee to replace if they fail for any reason. This policy has helped offset the relatively high price of peonies because, I think, people understand that I stand behind their investment in these plants.

In the fall I also plant divisions back into the propagation beds, which provide a continuing supply of peonies to dig, divide, and sell in the future. During the past decade peony-income has paid our property taxes every year except last year, when the economy was foundering.

I am currently expanding the business to include a bride’s garden, where people can cut their own peony flowers. This year for the first time I will be supplying peony flowers to a local co-op store and experimenting with zinnias and sunflowers to see whether they’re feasible cut-flower offerings that could extend the season, perhaps via local farmers’ markets.

What’s MHC’s role in all this? I grew up in a hands-on family, where I was taught to do things myself, by hand. A few years ago, while working on a degree in language-psychology at Harvard, I caught up on what modern science had been learning about the complementary evolutionary relationship between head and hands. I now understand that I came with ready hands to MHC, which trained my head to think about what I could do with my hands, whether teaching or writing or milking goats or raising peonies for sale. This balance between doing and thinking makes meaning—my rudder navigating the vicissitudes of life. I’m a little embarrassed to admit it now, but MHC’s wonderful gardens made it my college of choice, and I fondly remember studying outdoors in spring under the magnolias. I think MHC taught me to “study in a garden,” to seek and find meaning in what my hands can do.

  • Vicki Czahar ’90: To Know Your Food, Raise It Yourself

I reside in Granville, MA. My fiancé, Wayne Clark, Jr., and I work toward becoming self-sufficient. We currently garden, raise meat rabbits and a variety of poultry (laying hens, Cornish-game crosses, guinea hens), and keep honey bees. Though initially the focus was to feed ourselves and avoid the chemicals, hormones, antibiotics, etc., we have since opened our farm to the public and share.

We are not certified organic; it is not cost-effective for us and “organic” still allows many pesticides and chemicals we are not comfortable using; we find the term misleading. We do not have a farm stand, as traffic flow is inconsistent and can be minimal. When customers stop in, we offer a tour of the farm (baby bunnies are a favorite attraction) and allow them to pick or point out the vegetables they desire to purchase so that they are at their freshest and they know exactly from where they came.

We preserve the fruits and vegetables we do not consume fresh, and feed to our critters the excess not sold to customers. We sell the eggs from our laying hens. The guinea hens were brought in to reduce the tick population; though we have lost most of the original flock to wildlife over the years, we enjoy slipping the eggs under a broody laying hen to hatch out keets (baby guineas). The guineas are extremely loud and alert us to changes in their environment—hawks, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, bears, visitors, etc.; fortunately our closest neighbor is buffered by woods!

The chickens available in the grocery stores were small and chock full of unnecessary “additives,” so we started to raise our own. We have made chicken tractors so that once they are large enough to be outside, they have fresh air and green grass, which they fertilize for us, and are moved to a new spot twice each day. We raise enough to carry us from one season to the next. Originally we took them to be processed, but not always pleased with the results, or unsure if we were taking home our own birds, we started processing our own. We raised Peking ducks one summer; though very cheery and tasty, I became too attached to want to repeat the experience until we are better set up to keep some as pets. We have also raised turkeys, and may do so again.

We would like to raise cows, pigs, goats, and sheep, but need to build a barn and/or outbuildings with secure fencing. Protection from predators is always a concern. Despite three strands of electric, the bears are determined to get into the hives, and have on occasion put their paws through a chicken or turkey tractor.

We consider our honey bees precious; each year we plant something specifically for them, often find ourselves mowing around dandelions because they love them so, and will stop weeding to listen to them when they are pollinating the corn. Extracting honey is one of our most delightfully aromatic events. We do not necessarily save money by raising our own, but the satisfaction of knowing what we are consuming and how it was raised and handled is most gratifying. The days can be long and exhausting, but tend to be simple, fulfilling, rewarding, and nurture a greater appreciation for our food, critters, and surroundings.

  • Jane Eaton ’71: Planter of Peonies

My farm, Beauty of the Earth, produces mostly flowers. My home is surrounded by acres of fields, which I was paying to have bush cut to keep them from growing up. I traveled to CT and NY with a neighbor who had a fir balsam wreath and tree business, to see what his customers might suggest I grow on in my fields.

I came back with two ideas: pumpkins and peonies. My neighbor and I grew pumpkins for a number of years, but trucking them to NY was not my cup of tea. Meanwhile I planted 200 peonies. The plan is to have the latest peonies in the country. (Peonies begin to bloom in North Carolina in May and mine are harvested in late June, even into July.) Those 200 peonies have expanded to produce over 3,000 stems a year. I ship the peonies as cut flowers to Boston and CT.

I grow other cut flowers, which I market locally at a farmers market and through a service I call “Friday Deliveries.” Customers receive a delivery of fresh flowers on their doorstep on Fridays. They leave the vase out (like old-time milk deliveries) and I replace it with fresh flowers.

I also provide florist services for weddings, funerals, and other events.

Through my successful flower business I have picked up some landscaping jobs, which are very exciting.

I came to Washington County, Maine, one of the poorest counties in the country, after I graduated from law school, where I met my husband, who was born and raised here. I practiced law for over 10 years before I left the practice to raise a family. The farming was to use the fields but also to occupy my children. However, they never developed a passion for it as I have. Now they are grown up.

I can’t say that MHC played a specific role in my choice but without self-confidence I could not have accomplished what I have. Certainly MHC helped in that regard.

  • Jeanne Geiman ’68: Raising Plants and Animals, Small-Scale and Large-Scale

After graduating from MHC, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone for 2 years. I was a teacher. My future husband, David Geiman, was a Peace Corps volunteer involved in agricultural development (rice and oil palms).

Upon returning to the US, we lived in Virginia (where my husband had grown up on a mixed-use farm in the Shenandoah Valley near Waynesboro, VA). For seven years we were farmers who produced pigs and crops such as soybeans, corn, and sorghum.

We left the farm in about 1977 and my husband went to graduate school, while I worked as a social worker and cared for our two children. After my husband received his MBA from University of Virginia in 1980, he began a long career with Continental Grain Company. He was a commodities trader in Kansas City and Ft. Worth. He was also a corporate planner in NYC.

In 1983, we moved to Chicago, where my husband was operations manager and ultimately manager for Continental’s cattle-feeding operations out West. He later took over the management of their swine production operations as well. In the course of the fifteen years he worked for Continental, he had made many contacts in the agribusiness community.

In 1995, we were offered the opportunity to build facilities on some acreage that we owned in Missouri and to become contract feeder pig providers for Land O’Lakes Swine Division in Iowa. David left Continental and we began New Dominion Farms in 1995.

We moved to Albany, Missouri, and ultimately to Kansas City. At our largest, we had 4 production facilities in Missouri and 3 production facilities in Illinois. We employed 50 people in Missouri and 35 in Illinois. David was in charge of the financial and overall management and I was in charge of all the human resource operations. Land O’ Lakes sold their swine operations and our contract to the Maschhoffs of Illinois in 2005. They took over the day-to-day operations of all our farms.

As you can see, we are not your typical farmers (my husband’s undergrad degree was in political science and history from George Washington). The operations that we have been most involved with do, however, represent the changing face of production agriculture in the U.S. over the last 20–30 years.

At present, there are more and more organic and boutique farming operations beginning, but in the recent past there was tremendous consolidation in the Midwest, South, and West, and a move toward contract animal production, which guaranteed the producer a more stable income.

Get More Fresh Ideas • From the director of the 2009 documentary film Fresh, which celebrates the farmers, thinkers, and business people across America who are re-inventing the country’s food system, here are “10 Fresh Actions.”Read about the origins of the Mount Holyoke student garden (it’s up the hill, just behind the Mandelles)

Tags: , , , , , , , ,