Allegheny Mountain Institute: ‘Growing’ a healthier Highland County

Allegheny Mountain InstituteWhen the Allegheny Mountain Institute was established in 2011, the primary goal was to help Highland County citizens get healthier in mind and body. Today, that initial vision of linking consumers with those who grow their food has expanded to encompass a variety of leadership and training programs that are changing the way the community views agriculture.

From the beginning, AMI has focused on sustainable production methods and enhanced access to healthy food. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has partnered with AMI to address the sustainability side of the equation. Conservationists from the NRCS’ Verona service center provided technical assistance and helped AMI obtain funding to install conservation practices at its Highland farm and satellite operations.

AMI students and instructors have planted pollinator habitat to support their cropland and installed two high tunnels to extend their growing season. One structure is on a track that rotates through three different positions to break up pest cycles and give the soil a rest period during off years. They also implemented a rotational grazing plan and installed a new watering system for their livestock. The Verona team designed the system to avoid using electricity by pulling surface water from spring developments (an AMI request).

These activities have served to expand educational opportunities for AMI’s Farm and Food Fellows. The 18-month immersive educational program for aspiring farmers, educators, and food leaders teaches participants about produce production and the proper management of livestock. The fellows spend a growing season living communally on the farm with hands-on training raising vegetables, beef cattle, poultry, bees and more while learning how to grow food sustainably.

NRCS Cropland Agronomist Chris Lawrence and the Verona field office have provided training to highlight the soil health connection to improving crop yields and reducing the environmental impact of agriculture. Frequent tillage and the reduction of organic matter can decrease aggregate stability, making the soil less porous. Porous soil retains air, fosters infiltration of water and facilitates movement for roots and soil life. Using a rainfall simulator, Lawrence showed how soil with poor aggregation can dislodge in heavy rains, releasing excess runoff of soil and nutrients into streams and rivers, which in turn reduces water quality.

In this immersive experience, students harvest and eat the food they grow or preserve it to be eaten later. A portion of the produce is also donated to local charities, with more than 2,400 pounds provided to local food pantries in the last year alone. In year two of the program, the students work with local nonprofits and schools to develop leadership skills that will help foster vibrant, equitable communities.

This commitment to locally-guided change has also led to Allegheny Mountain Institute’s most recent endeavor. In 2018, the group established the AMI Farm at Augusta Health, on the hospital’s Fishersville campus. The operation is now home to a farm-to-hospital initiative that combines vegetable production and integration into an institutional food service, with health and agriculture education for the region.

In addition to providing organically grown vegetables to a 255-bed hospital, the farm supplies a prescription produce intervention for diabetic patients. Patients referred to the “Food Farmacy” by their physicians can receive no-cost prescriptions for fruits and vegetables from the AMI farm stand. Proving that success breeds success, AMI is gearing up to double the size of the Food Farmacy program in 2019. NRCS supported these efforts by providing funding for another high tunnel at the Augusta Health farm.

A companion educational program teaches attendees about the importance of nutrition and how to prepare healthy recipes. AMI is also offering other educational training, which will include soil health workshops, season extension, composting, nutrition and much more.

Allegheny Mountain Institute is well on the way to achieving its goal of creating a program to guide fellows in not only learning how to grow food but also how to become leaders in the community. Executive Director Sue Erhardt sums up AMI’s philosophy this way: “Healthy food should be a right, not a luxury.”

Visit AMI’s website or Facebook page to learn more about the group and upcoming events. The application window for the next 18-month fellowship program will open in the fall.

Story by Emily Fugate, NRCS Soil Conservationist

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