Grow Food grows support in the Pioneer Valley

by Laura Hilberg

Jen Hartley arrived for our meeting at a downtown cafe right on time and out of breath, having just come from an informal meeting of Grow Food Northampton board members and core volunteers. They had gathered to discuss the success of their recently completed land purchase campaign. Grow Food is already realizing its vision of increased food security, equal access to fresh food, and sustainable agriculture in the Northampton community. The group now found themselves with an exciting question to explore: what has made this project so successful?

Grow Food is a young organization, and rose out of community concern for the fate of the Bean family farm that had gone up for sale. Among those interested in the property was the City of Northampton, whose officials planned to use the land for new recreational fields. Many town residents felt that the Bean Farm should be preserved as working farmland. Located on the fertile soil of the Mill River floodplain, it was one of the last working farms within the city limits. The farm also has additional historical value for its role in the 1800s as a stop on the Underground Railroad and home of an abolitionist community which included well-known figures David Ruggles and Sojourner Truth.

In 2009, concerned citizens circulated a petition for the farm’s preservation, eventually collecting 850 signatures from town residents. This sparked a community-wide discussion about land use, raising awareness of issues including food security. Hartley said it was “big drama, which was sad, but also drummed up a lot of publicity for our project. The community forums were packed!”

In December, the adjoining Allard farm went up for sale as well, and this finally allowed a compromise. The Northampton Department of Recreation would buy one small parcel and the City of Northampton would also own a small parcel bordering the Mill River as conservation land. The bulk of the property would be stripped of development rights and preserved forever as farmland under the state Agricultural Preservation Restriction. Grow Food now had the opportunity to purchase the land at
a reduced cost. Members of Grow Food approached many non-profits in the area, seeking collaboration on the project. They were turned down over and over again, usually because the other non-profits didn’t have the funds to work on a project of such large scope. In February 2010, Grow Food became registered as a non-profit so that they could tackle the fundraising on their own.

A national non-profit called the Trust for Public Land (TPL) agreed to take a chance on the brand-new community organization. TPL works by buying farmland and other open spaces from the seller, and then holds the development rights and resells it to a conservation-minded buyer (keeping the price of the land low). In this case, TPL divided the land into parcels and offered Grow Food the chance to buy a combination of any or all of the parcels.

“July was the hardest time. We didn’t know if we could do it,” said Hartley. She said meetings with TPL and their national fundraisers were difficult at times. They encouraged Grow Food to create a list of community members, and then generate an amount that the organization believed those members could give. But Grow Food felt that meant approaching people and telling them how much to give and when. “It felt all wrong,” said Hartley. Instead, they looked for outside fundraising consultants and
finally found several dedicated people with flexible ideas. “That’s when we were able to say, ‘Yes! This is how it needs to happen, we’re going to do it our way!’”

With this additional support, Grow Food put together a campaign that urged people to “examine their values and give according to their own ability.” Hartley said that without that change in the fundraising strategy, the project probably would not have been possible.

Grow Food celebrated the official start of the ‘Capital Campaign’ with a harvest celebration in September 2010, and by this time they had already raised $250,000 dollars. The end goal of $670,000 felt impossibly far away, and Hartley said she often thought “We’re never going to make it at this rate.”

But shortly after the banquet, community interest skyrocketed due to dedicated volunteer work. Over 200 volunteers made personal appeals and phone calls, went door-to-door, put out mailings, wrote thank-you notes and tabled at the weekly farmers’ market. They organized a local showing of Fresh, a documentary featuring giants in the sustainable agriculture movement such as Michael Pollin and Joel Salatin. A number of local small business owners donated a portion of their profits on services, including landscaping, massage, nutritional counseling and more, and Whole Foods in nearby Hadley dedicated one of their regular “5% Days” to Grow Food, donating 5% of their proceeds from one business day to the project.

At the beginning of the campaign, Hartley and her husband sat down to think about the largest amount they could possibly give. “Scary! But we had to just do it,” she said. As the campaign wore on, Hartley looked at what she had around the house that might have monetary value. It started with a blender. Jen sold it for $10 with proceeds to be donated to Grow Food. That kicked off a trend, and soon the Grow Food listserv was packed with used items and services for sale on behalf of the organization. Hartley
said it was powerful to see volunteers and staunch supporters give, give again and then look in their closet for more.

“It wasn’t until Christmas that I knew we would make it,” said Jen. On New Year’s Eve, Grow Food officially notified TPL that they would buy all available parcels of land, totaling 120 acres.

On the last day of the campaign drive in late January, the Kestrel Trust gave a large donation that tipped the scale to just over the goal of $670,000. Because of these fundraising efforts, Grow Food was able to create the Forever Farmland program, expanding the organization’s focus outside of the Northampton area and launching a regional effort to protect valuable farmland.

Grow Food signed the sale agreement on February 25, 2011, and became the proud owners of some of the best farmland in the region. The capital campaign drive was over after only 7 months! They hired two young, local farmers to start a model Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project on the property. In March, Grow Food added Lily Lombard as a full-time executive director and Jen as the Community Education and Administration Director. Grow Food is also building community gardens, creating educational programs and offering low-cost, short-term leases of some fields to farmers in the start-up process (known as a farm incubation program). Within the CSA, named Crimson & Clover Farm, 25 shares have been subsidized for low-income families in the area, and a portion of the harvest is being donated to local food pantries.

Harltey said personal relationships were key to Grow Food’s success. Many of the core volunteers have known each for years. They also had many community connections. Lombard’s presence was vital for the group – Hartley described her as “a force of nature”, “doggedly committed” and “an excellent and very skillful leader.” Other members have diverse and often highly specialized skills, including experience in grant writing, policy, administration, bookkeeping and graphic design.

Hartley also brought dedication and vision to the project, even quitting her job to work on the project.

For her, the creation of a community farm was more than just a way to produce local, organic food. It was also a necessary step towards providing food in the near future. “We can’t stop what is happening [climate change and peak oil], we can only mitigate the damage. And we have to start now,” she said.

Hartley says she feels a lot of pressure to move her community towards increased resilience and flexibility in the face of change. She wrote a personal appeal letter to her own family and friends in which she gave voice to her concerns about her daughter’s future (“I want her to have food to eat,” she wrote). However, she knows she can be serious and somewhat blunt, and often made the conscious decision to step back, allowing other members to help her emphasize positive ideas and hope. Hartley felt that in order to be successful, the group had to “communicate in the most effective way.” A board member told Jen that he felt Grow Food never ignored the realities of a grave situation, but still let individuals decide what they were ready to hear. “Grow Food was always telling the truth. It gave people hope,” said Jen.

In Jen’s words, the campaign was a “confluence of community, networking and rabid commitment,”and it worked!

Visit Grow Food Northampton on their website at www.growfoodnorthampton.com for more information, or contact Laura directly at lhilberg@antioch.edu.

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