Learning About Sustainable Agriculture

Mountain school includes classes on sustainable agriculture, food product and organic farming, and focuses on leadership development for farmers.

| March/April 2015

Trevor Piersol first learned about the Allegheny Mountain School while he was living in China and teaching English. “I was trying to figure out which direction I wanted to go in life,” he says. When a friend told him about an immersive school focused on teaching sustainable agricultural practices, he knew he was interested.

“I had this underlying drive going back to my childhood to do work related to environmental conservation.” He says a fellowship at the Allegheny Mountain School was exactly the kind of experience he was seeking — a chance “to engage with agriculture and food systems in order to improve the health of communities and their environments.”

Highland County, Virginia, property owner Laurie Berman founded the Allegheny Mountain School almost five years ago, following a road trip where she began noticing that people didn’t have backyard gardens anymore, that there was basically a food desert when it came to fresh produce in many places. Berman has owned property in Highland’s Allegheny Mountains since the 1970s, and she decided that her 550 acres represented an ideal spot to build a school devoted to the food community — a school that would teach young men and women how to produce food sustainably, and then train them to lead others to do the same.

The school, now in its fourth full year of operation, engages up to 12 individuals — often referred to as “fellows” — each growing season to live and work on a farm located at 4,200 feet above sea level in Virginia’s smallest county by population. For six months — a typical Highland County growing season — students live and work on the mountaintop, learning how to grow and prepare their own food, and, more importantly, how to pass that knowledge on and promote sustainable agriculture in communities around the country.

“We have an application process whereby we look at a student’s background, work experience, essays they write about why they want to immerse themselves in this food education experience, and personal interviews,” says Ellen Butchart, Allegheny Mountain School program director. “We also look for leadership skills, volunteer efforts — something that shows they’ve actually thought about the qualities and skills required to work in a community.”

Surprisingly, Butchart says the school doesn’t necessarily look for recent college graduates, seeking instead young adults who have had some experience in the working world and also have the flexibility to take off for 18 months and do something different. Following the six-month on-site training, fellows spend another year interning at a food-related project or organization, mainly in Central Virginia.

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