By Samantha Taggart, AMI Fellowship Alumna
How I Came to AMI
I came to the Allegheny Mountain Institute (AMI) after a somewhat winding path leading towards the study of sustainable agriculture. During high school, I became aware of what was happening in our country’s factory farming industry and sought a more humane and holistic system for raising animals for food. In college, I realized that many of the methods we use to raise food in this country – not just animals but also our crops – are linked to an industrialized agricultural system that goes against many of the principles and examples that nature gives us (e.g. waste recycling, efficient use of nutrients, and preservation of the biological health of the soil). I realized that there was a much better way that we could be raising our food. Contemplating a few different post-graduation plans, I decided to take a leap and apply to AMI. I am so happy that I did.
My dream for a more holistic, ecological food system is one of the things that led me to AMI. AMI is an organization that roots its programs, activities, and collaborations in a deep sense of purpose – a purpose that consistently stays true to its larger mission. On the first day of our farm fellowship, our farm manager asked us to come up with our own mission statement as a cohort. Together, we created the statement: “To gain a deep understanding of ecological systems, responsible farming techniques, and our holistic connection to the land in order to heal our environment, our communities, and ourselves.” It is that kind of intentionality, that deep-rootedness in one’s core values, that first drew me to the Allegheny Mountain Institute.
Life on the Mountain
The AMI farm in Highland County is one of the most beautiful and serene places I have ever been to, let alone lived in. When one drives up the winding ridge-lined road that leads to the AMI farm, one finds their lungs expanding, their breath deepening, and their mind clear. It is an incredible place to live.
Though quite isolated from other humans, what you lose in interaction with society and city-life, you gain in interaction and connectedness with the natural world. Making the space and the time to commune with birds, deer, insects and plants, I felt my connection and empathy towards the living world deepen with each passing day. No longer was I an individual existing at a disconnect from those around me – I was a person intimately connected to a beautiful, breathing interdependent world that I held a stake in preserving and nurturing.
On the more anthropological side, living with such few people in such a remote area challenged our cohort to better our communication and listening skills so that we could together create a respectful and compassionate living and working atmosphere. Of course, we were actively engaged with others outside of our own cohort as well and worked closely with the local Highland County community, workshop instructors and other AMI partners.
Cooking and celebrating the food we grew was as much a part of the farm fellowship as growing the food. With the exception of staples like milk, nuts, and grains, most of our food came directly from the garden. On a rotating basis, two Fellows took on responsibility for cooking lunch and dinner for each day, allowing us to create beautiful, thoughtful meals that used the fruits of our labor from the garden. The rest of the cohort would spend the day prepping garden beds, sowing seeds, weeding, trellising, harvesting, or whatever else needed to be done around the farm. Consistent with AMI’s mission and style, the methods and practices around growing this food were grounded in the goal of preserving and enhancing the health of the land on which we worked.
During the farm fellowship we had our hands in the soil each and every day. Though I had gardened and farmed before AMI, it had never been such an important part of my everyday life. Over the course of working so intimately in the soil, I realized how alive it was and what a great impact our farming practices had on its health and fertility. Our close work in the soils of the AMI farm inspired me to write a guidebook entitled “Strength in Microbes: A Guide to Improving Soil Health” as part of my capstone project for the Fellowship.
During the second yearlong phase of my AMI fellowship, I taught elementary and middle school students about the wonderful world of the living soil beneath their feet. After the Fellowship, I began an M.S. program in Horticulture at Virginia Tech and studied the use of cover crops to enhance beneficial microorganisms in the soil, improve soil health, and increase crop yields. After finishing my degree this spring, I plan to enter a teaching certification program in the fall. I hope to use the skills and knowledge I have gained in the agricultural and soil science fields to inspire young people to care for the earth and seek to understand its ecological processes more fully.
Reflection on the Fellowship
AMI taught me many things – not just about how to farm with the health of the land forefront in mind, but also how to communicate and how to collaborate with others in meaningful and fruitful ways benefiting the whole of the community. AMI was as much a lesson in healthy communities as it was in healthy landscapes. The experience taught me that everyone has something to add to the conversation and that many times the best thing one can do is to listen carefully, even when others have different opinions, and find common ground.
I also learned a lot about myself through the program. I learned that – for me – a well-lived life comes from living out one’s core values in everyday life. I learned that, if I seek a just and compassionate food system, I must first cultivate justice and compassion in myself and share that with others.
I would wholeheartedly recommend AMI to anyone looking to create a more sustainable agricultural system, especially at the local level. AMI is a program unique unto itself that teaches of the value of connection – that is connection to those members of your community who produce your food and connection to the food itself. AMI delves deeply into the moral and civil foundation that I believe is a big force driving the local food movement – that is, the desire to regain connectedness with food – with how it’s grown, who is growing it, and the land it comes from. There is nothing that I can think of more fulfilling than to plant, nurture, harvest, prepare, and share food together. AMI taught me that lesson, and for that I am forever grateful.