BY SAMANTHA ABNEY '17
The roots of agriculture run deep in Western Massachusetts, dating as far back as the 1600s and enduring throughout the birth of modern American agriculture and community supported agricultural efforts in the Connecticut River Valley, according to WGBY. Around 2012, programming for garden spaces began popping up at elementary schools in Amherst, pioneered by University of Massachusetts, Amherst faculty, students and alumna, according to information collected by Grow Food Amherst. These programs aimed to provide schools with food grown on their campuses, and consequently created educational opportunities for the students of these institutions.
Since then, schools all over the Pioneer Valley have integrated into their curriculum opportunities for students to dig their hands into the dirt of their school gardens and extract lessons in science, business, food justice, health and more. This work is not exclusive to primary school students. Indeed, our consortium partners Smith, Hampshire and Amherst are all doing a bit of dirty work themselves, each with their own program, area of study, organization or class that allows Five College students to participate in outdoor gardening and agriculture.
My question is: Why not Mount Holyoke?
Historically, MHC broke new ground in the world of food production and environmental efforts. Dating back to 1918, the “Farmerettes” engaged in the Victory Garden movement in response to World War I. With the start of World War II, the garden was reopened to a new generation of Mount Holyoke farming. More recently, Crops for a Closer Community, a student garden program, was founded in 2007 after gaining support from the MHC community and the Center for the Environment (now known as the Miller Worley Center). Student interns staffed the garden, and events including speakers, potluck dinners, agricultural summits and gracious dinners were held and documented on mhcgarden.blogspot.com. Crops for a Closer Community was able to form a relationship with Mount Holyoke Dining Services, and provided basil, squash and a variety of other vegetables to Dining Services throughout its 6 year run. However, summer staffing posed a recurring issue, and student participation dwindled as students in the program graduated. In the summer of 2014, the student garden program closed its operations.
Attempts have been made by individual students to revitalize the garden since its closing, but no efforts have been sustained. Currently, there are no programs, organizations or classes that connect Mount Holyoke with the culture of agriculture that remains present in the Pioneer Valley.
However, in fall of 2016 the College released its 2021 Strategic Plan, which put emphasis on promoting environmental efforts, developing innovative approaches to teaching and learning, enriching academic programs in environmental studies, entrepreneurship and global health and identifying functions and resources for the Miller Worley Center for the Environment. Since the publication of said strategic plan, a Sustainability Task Force has been organized to address these goals.
Movement is happening across campus and discussions surrounding the idea of on-campus gardening are ongoing. The time is now to revitalize the pre-existing student garden and reclaim Mount Holyoke’s stake within the agricultural movement across college campuses.
I propose The Pepper Box Project, a garden-based education program that will integrate sustainable gardening practices into food production, education and research opportunities for Mount Holyoke Students, community members and students in South Hadley and surrounding areas. By restoring land previously allotted to the student gardens atop Delles Hill (alternatively known as Prospect Hill, and historically the location of the small pavilion known as The Pepper Box), this project will serve to meet the aforementioned goals of the 2021 Strategic Plan, and
additionally will adopt and adapt goals and programming from the Crops for a Closer Community student garden. Future plans for Crops for a Closer Community included further community involvement and inviting schools and students from South Hadley to participate in hands-on educational opportunities in food access, health, science and agriculture. Additional plans were envisioned to expand the space and activities hosted by the program. This expansion would serve to increase on-campus participation from the MHC community, academic departments and partnership opportunities, according to the MHC website.
Considering these plans, the goals of the 2021 Strategic Plan, the changes occurring on campus with centralized dining and the construction of SuperBlanch and the rich agricultural environment found in the Pioneer Valley, the Pepper Box Project has an opportunity to move our campus forward. Additionally, with a means of supporting student workers, sustainable agriculture, educational innovation and community engagement, Mount Holyoke has an opportunity to be a cornerstone in a continued legacy, and a pioneer in the agricultural education movement. To not implement a program of this nature would be a missed opportunity for both the College and the community.