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Friend of COA
Polly Guth sets down her coffee cup, leans toward her guest, and with deep blue eyes fiercely sparkling declares, “I’m a farmer. I know about farming. I know you can make a go of it on a farm.”
Never mind that we’re sipping cappuccino in an elegant New York City living room a stone’s throw from the Central Park Zoo, Polly’s heart lies in the pastures and farmlands of the world. This devotion to organic farms, good nutrition, and many other social efforts led her and her husband John to help establish the Partridge Foundation to fund such causes.
It is thanks to this foundation, which two years ago granted COA $2.5 million to enhance its focus on organic farming, that COA now has a Sustainable Food Systems program. Since March of 2010, this program has been run by Molly Anderson, the Partridge Chair in Food and Sustainable Agriculture Systems.
Polly Guth’s love of farming is in her blood. She grew up on a Manchester, New Hampshire farm, near the textile mill that employed her father upon his graduation from Harvard. When World War II came, and food shortages were feared, Polly recalls, “Right off, my mother said, ‘We have to survive. We will survive, and we will have our neighbors survive.’” Polly’s mother went to work expanding the farm. Polly has fond memories of collecting eggs, milking a cow, and raising vegetables, cattle, and chickens. “Both my parents were original environmentalists,” she says. “They ran away from their families.”
This childhood taught Polly the particular needs of rural communities, and the environmental values of making do. It makes sense, then, that Polly, who owns a house on Sutton Island, off Mt. Desert Island, would connect to COA through Beech Hill Farm. She recalls the valiant efforts of former farm managers Lara Judson ’04 and Diane Lokocz ’03 in making Beech Hill more of a teaching farm. At Polly’s suggestion, COA applied to the Partridge Foundation for some assistance for the farm; the funding helped it turn the corner to profitability.
Says Polly, “COA was very interesting to me as a college of human ecology, which I didn’t understand at first. But as I began to visit, I began to see its purpose.” She so believes in the value of raising one’s own food that she’d like to see every student at COA spend a term working on the farm. Then she laughs, a deep-throated, full laugh. “I know, I’m very autocratic. The college is very democratic.”
But Polly is delighted to know that many students do work on the farm, that local schools serve some of the farm’s produce, and that schoolchildren often come to the farm in the fall to help pull carrots and dig potatoes. She’s also impressed by the Share the Harvest program, run by COA students, that makes Beech Hill Farm produce accessible to more local families through farm stand certificates.
As we continue talking, the conversation turns to Polly’s friend Christopher Bielenberg. Christopher’s father, Peter Bielenberg, was implicated in a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler during World War II, but managed to escape the death penalty. After the war, summers of work and tranquility on a farm in Ireland restored the family’s sense of well-being, imbuing Christopher with a devotion to farming. An admirer of the Faculty of Organic Agricultural Sciences at Germany’s University of Kassel, Christopher also chairs the board of the Organic Research Centre at Elm Farm in the United Kingdom. At Polly’s suggestion these two venerable European institutions combined with COA to form our Transatlantic Partnership in Sustainable Food Systems.
With the hiring of Molly Anderson, who has an extensive domestic and international background in food issues, both the COA-based food systems program and the Transatlantic Partnership program have taken off. “I have enormous faith in Molly,” says Polly. “She’s a very intelligent woman with a tremendous background.”
And Molly has enormous respect for what the Partridge Foundation has added to the college. “In many ways, COA’s educational model is far ahead of other institutions of higher education in its ability to foster creative, interdisciplinary solutions to the food system challenges of today,” Molly says.
“COA is a very different breed of college,” adds Polly. “It’s the perfect place to do this.”