Fresh Food 101
Highland County is the least populated county in Virginia. It has no grocery stores, and good food is often hard to come by, which is why the Allegheny Mountain Institute (AMI) was started in 2011. The nonprofit school’s mission is to teach young leaders how to grow food so they can teach other consumers about the importance of agriculture.
Situated on 550 acres of land bordering George Washington National Forest and West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest, the farm was originally a homestead that has been turned into a fully functional learning space. It is sponsored by The Highland Center, a nonprofit organization committed to cultural and economic development in the Allegheny Highlands region of Virginia and West Virginia.
“Our focus is on teaching and reaching members of the community,” says Ellen Butchart, AMI program director. “It’s a service organization in that sense.”
The students are called fellows, and they come from all over the country to participate in the program. “It’s a really interesting mix of people,” says Butchart. “It’s our goal to create a high-functioning team so they can continue to work together and be each other’s networks. Ultimately, we want them to strengthen their communities.”
The fellowship program has two phases. During the first phase, students learn the basics of farming and making healthy foods. Fellows attend classes and workshops that teach them a variety of things, from mushroom cultivation and foraging to cheese making, canning and preserving, and soil health.
The second phase sends students out into the community to work at nonprofits and other organizations to exercise their new skills.
Kayla MacLachlan is the program manager and garden educator at AMI. Before that, she was a fellow. “I learned how to grow food confidently so that I can teach other people,” she says.
MacLachlan says the basic program is not difficult. “It’s easy to stick your hand in the dirt and put a seed in the ground. It’s easy to pull a piece of fruit off a plant. You don’t need to know all of the science behind it. You just need a love and appreciation for it,” she says.
In 2015, AMI added livestock to the sustainable, whole-system farming program. Butchart says the challenge is figuring out how the business of farming fits into the curriculum.
“You can teach people how to raise animals and grow food, but if they’re going to be farmers, they’re also going to be running businesses. That’s a part of the conversation,” she says.
Fellows come into the program with different ideas for their futures. Former fellows have gone on to start businesses, teach at colleges and universities, work on farms, and focus on marketing and outreach. Some have stayed to work at the Highland Center.
“We flex to the needs of the community and also the interests and the strengths of the fellows,” Butchart says.
One thing’s for sure: Most fellows are inspired by their time at the school. “There’s a great pleasure in having the ability to grow your own food and to take that food and provide for yourself and your family,” says MacLachlan.
She tries to create a unique experience for students, with the support of the staff and board of directors.
“I’ve pretty much been able to dream up what the curriculum will look like,” she says.
The ultimate goal is to create agriculturally savvy young people who will spread their love of growing food and raising livestock to their communities.
Allegheny Mountain Institute
The Highland Center