Learning About Sustainable Agriculture

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One of the spectacular views from the school grounds.
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A stone walkway will soon lead the way to some of the crop ground.
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Inspecting plants for pests takes a keen-eyed farmer.

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.

“We’ve had fellows not just from Virginia but from Pennsylvania, all over the Mid-Atlantic, Chicago, California, Colorado,” Butchart says. “This last year we even had two international students.

“It’s become an interesting way to attract people to Highland,” she says, noting the need for young blood in the small and isolated rural county where the project is located. The location is really ideal for the 20- and 30-somethings who typically make up this vast outdoor classroom. Butchart says they learn to find themselves and hone leadership skills in a small enough community where they can get to know the public and government leaders, and exercise some influence.

Food production is the main thing, however, and Butchart says it’s “intensive.” Fellows start everything from seed (and also learn how to save seeds), they weed, tend, harvest, cook and preserve food. “They’re all homesteading type skills,” she says. There is also a strong emphasis at the school on permaculture — looking at how gardens are designed, and, on top of that, how communities are designed or could be designed. Eventually, Butchart hopes to start a permaculture certification program at the school.

Fellows also participate in workshops led by area experts on everything from how to build stone walls to how to forage for food in the forest. And a big part of the curriculum is leadership. “We have an alliance with the local school system,” Butchart says, “and we do a literature-in-the-garden program with students.” Fellows also sell the fruits of their harvest at the local farmers’ market.

In addition, fellows conduct food-related research projects on subjects of their choice during the summer growing season and present them at their commencement in November. Butchart says one of the biggest benefits of the summer term, however, is the relationships it creates and cements among fellows and their mentors. “The other fellows and our teachers and workshop experts represent a network to them that they can use once they go out into the world,” Butchart says.

At summer’s close, fellows continue on to internships, some with the school itself, others with area schools, food security organizations or educational farms. Butchart says a surprising number end up employed by the places where they spend their year-long internship.

That’s been the case for Piersol, now a project manager with the Allegheny Mountain School, who was originally a fellow of the school in 2012. Today he manages the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind Educational Farm in Staunton, and he teaches permaculture at the Allegheny Mountain School.

“For me, the 18-month Allegheny Mountain School fellowship experience was nothing short of life-changing,” Piersol says. “Imagine being able to dedicate that time to deep study and experiential learning on both a sustainable farm and in a real world nonprofit organization. Add to that the continual support of a variety of mentors and experts, and what you get is the type of holistic, comprehensive education that, from my experience, is very hard to find these days.”

Since 2013, Piersol has managed the VSDB Educational Farm, and in 10 months has helped take two acres of “lifeless, degraded land and started to transform it into a healthy, diverse, productive ecosystem.” The farm is an outdoor classroom, and it also supplies fresh produce to the school cafeteria.

Another fellow went on to become the operations manager at a community farm, while others work on urban farms or go onto graduate programs in food culture. One of the fellows has also taken on a permanent position at The Highland Center — the county’s small business development center.

“There’s a lot of personal development going on in those six months on the mountain,” Butchart says. “These fellows live, work and cook together. By the end of it, they have really changed. It’s a nurturing and supportive environment.”

Butchart says a lot of individuals and organizations have contacted her, wondering how they can start similar education programs in their communities. She says it’s not as hard as you might think. “Find out who the people are in your community who already have a capacity to help,” she says, noting that many public schools and food banks have grants to support sustainable agriculture and food education programs.

She says she’s always glad to lend an ear or offer ideas to others who are interested in modeling this unique educational environment.  

The east coast isn’t the only area home to a farm school.Getting an Agriculture Education at the Farm School tells of a Wisconsin couple who traveled to Washington for intensive schooling.

More info

For more information, visit the Allegheny Mountain School website , or call 540-468-2300.