Book and Plow Produce Debuts at Valentine
Issue   |   Tue, 09/10/2013 - 23:52
Olivia Tarantino ’15: Head Photographer
Book and Plow farm, which started earlier this year, includes a greenhouse which will be used to extend the harvest time for certain crops into December.

This year, Val’s salad bar contains new language. The typical designations still remain. Lettuce is still obviously labeled “Lettuce;” Carrots are still obviously labeled “Carrots.” But, if you look at the glossy white labels a little closer, you might see “Book and Plow” peeking at you in small print. Indeed, the College’s very own Book and Plow Farm has made its dining debut.

The project of Book and Plow, conceived by a group of students and faculty interested in sustainable agriculture, was made official earlier this year. Farmers Peter McLean and Tobin Porter-Brown are responsible for 45 acres of farmland. Five acres are utilized to produce vegetables, while the rest serve their purpose in cover crops or hay. To date, the five acres of relevance have produced not just the aforementioned lettuce and carrots, but spinach, turnips, beet, squash, scallions, kale and, most popularly, watermelon.

Dining Services has always been known to support local farmers, particularly those within a 150-mile radius.

“We have been using local produce for several decades,” says Val’s Executive Chef Jeremy Roush. “But, the crops from Book and Plow have given us an exciting opportunity to experiment in the kitchen.”

By experimenting, Roush speaks of food preservation. The farm is supplying Val with as much food as possible before the onset of winter, which ultimately means a surplus in items such as kale, collards and tomatoes.

“We’re showing our workers — workers that have been working at Val for 20-30 years — new skills like pickling and brining,” Roush said. “We’ll also be making our own seasoning salt, maybe some purée and pestos.”

This course of action is still in line with Book and Plow’s goal of providing fresh food.

“We can freeze and preserve ingredients and still maintain their integrity,” Roush said.

The relationship between Val and Book and Plow isn’t perfect, however.

“There are certain food items we can’t take,” said Director of Dining Services Charlie Thompson. “We told them [the Book and Plow farmers] don’t grow us winter squash or garlic, because we buy it locally from other farms.”

The present labor force at Val can’t handle peeling and slicing a myriad amount of raw winter squash and garlic. Book and Plow Farm, unlike certain farms in nearby Belchertown, wouldn’t be able to provide these items ready-made. Additionally, there have been problems in modifying the menu according to the produce offered by Book and Plow at any given time.

“There have been times when Book and Plow has several hundred eggplants in the field and I can’t fit it to that day’s menu,” Roush said. “There’s always the question: how am I able to engineer the resources into the next menu cycle?”

While Book and Plow Farm was created to primarily serve the College community, the farmers find other outlets when Dining Services can’t take their produce.

“We have a lot of produce so we try to get creative with our distribution,” Farmer Tobin Porter-Brown said. “We’ve established relationships with the other colleges, Hampshire and Mount Holyoke in particular. We also sell to restaurants: The Lumber Yard, High Horse, and Arise — all in Amherst.”

Another form of distribution, Box Share, is, according to Farmer Peter McLean, “a way for us to directly sell to faculty and staff in the surrounding communities.” An individual can sign up for a box of varied produce on a weekly basis for $40; the contents of the box depend on that week’s harvest. So far, only eight people take advantage of this resource, a significant number considering the concept has only been in practice for three weeks. Interested individuals can sign up on the farm’s website, www.bookandplowfarm.com.

In addition to the question of distribution, the staff at Book and Plow has had to cope with irrigation and weather dilemmas. Initially, the farmers planned to utilize Fort River as a water source. However, the town of Amherst disallowed it on the grounds of conservation regulations. During the summer, Fort River has a slow flow rate, and taking a significant amount of water from the river would, according to Amherst public officials, disrupt this flow rate (thereby causing an environmental disruption). Fortunately, rain patterns have been sufficient to sustain the crops.

“Things never go according to plan,” Porter-Brown said. “We’ve been lucky to fall back on consistent rainfall as an irrigation source.”
Correspondingly, to combat the coming cold temperatures, the farmers hope to utilize a heated greenhouse. New England weather is only favorable for so long, and the Book and Plow greenhouse of 40 by 30 feet will be able to prolong said favorability.

It’s noteworthy to mention Book and Plow farm is not certified organic, though they do not use chemical or synthetic fertilizers.

“We are organic but we feel we don’t need to go through all of the paperwork and cost to become certified,” McLean said. “If our customers want to know about our practices, we’ll be as accommodating and translucent as possible.”

Although the farmers of Book and Plow acknowledge the challenges of their project, they focus on the amount of support they’ve accrued.
“We have some awesome volunteers that make our job incredible and efficient,” said both of the farmers.

Students and members of the community comprise the volunteer force.

“Students can become involved in almost every capacity. We have had a dozen or so students already come out to the farm to volunteer just since school started,” said Monica Cesinger ’15, one of the student volunteers and initial supporters of Book and Plow. “Students can volunteer to pick veggies, weed, seed, plant, etc.”

Students can spontaneously show up on Monday and Thursday throughout the day or on Wednesday afternoons. Usually, the staff meets at 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. at the greenhouse (located on Tuttle Hill). In terms of further student involvement, summer internships are currently in place. Friends of Book and Plow, the official student group on campus affiliated with the farm, coordinates Farm Fest and meetings to foster dialogue about the farm’s operations. Additionally, work-study opportunities are projected for the future.

Student feedback about the produce has been wholly positive.

“The football team was here the week before Orientation. We were eating breakfast at Val and one of the members was walking out. He told us: ‘Thanks for the healthy produce,’” McLean recalled.

Based on the quality of its first harvest and the enthusiasm of its staff and supporters, Book and Plow Farm hopes to become a strong asset to the College and the community at large.

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