Northshire Grows transitions programs to Merck Forest

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RUPERT— Tucked into the rolling Taconic Mountains in the northwestern corner of Bennington County lies 3,162 acres of preserved land open to the public 365 days a year.

Here at Merck Forest and Farmland Center (MFFC), nature lovers can experience a 62-acre working farm, learn about proper forest management, hike and ski more than 30 miles of recreational trails, and even go camping.

To Northshire Grows Founder and former Executive Director Liz Ruffa, it seemed obvious that her nonprofit organization that served Bennington County's local food sector for five years should team up with MFFC. She and MFFC Executive Director Rob Terry began talking logistics last summer, and over the course of their conversations it seemed apparent that the organizations should align.

"It just became obvious that we'd be stronger together," Terry said. "Northshire Grows had the network connections and the thought leadership. Merck Farms has the educational farm, the field educators, and the farm managers who can and are expected to do that engagement work to get anyone who's interested excited to know what regional farming looks like in Bennington County."

Ruffa ended 2018 by working at Merck part time and winding down her work at Northshire Grows. On Jan. 2, she eased into her new position as Merck's first director of institutional advancement.

Many of Northshire Grows' signature programs — like the Farm to School initiatives that not only help bring local produce into area schools but give local farmers business — have followed Ruffa to MFFC as Merck seeks to carry out its current programs and build on them.

"What Rob and I realized through a series of discussions over the summer and fall of 2018 is that MFFC has an amazing `place' and [Northshire Grows] runs an amazing community `network,'" Ruffa said. "We look forward to building aligned capacity to be better together through a shared effort's opportunity for collective impact."

The connectivity between the two organizations will focus on ecosystem health and farmland health through "effective stewardship, place-based education, and community engagement" in environmental conservation, Ruffa said. Overall, now many of Northshire Grows' successful programs will now exist under MFFC and be built upon thanks to MFFC's resources.

Since 2013, Northshire Grows has developed Farm to School initiatives serving Bennington County's 3,000-plus students, increased local farm viability through local purchasing at many of the area's educational and healthcare institutions, and provided a community hub and forum for residents to better understand the benefits of supporting local food economies.

By being connected, Merck Forest and Northshire Grows will focus on the importance of ecosystem and farm health through effective stewardship, place-based education at Merck, and encouraging community engagement in environmental conservation.

Merck Forest and Northshire Grows

In the mid 1930s, George Merck, son of the Merck Pharmaceuticals founder, chose a farm in Rupert as a country retreat for himself and his family to escape the hustle and bustle of city life.

In 1950, Merck's family acquired a number of adjoining properties and formed a nonprofit that at the time was called the Vermont Forest and Farmland Center. This nonprofit was dedicated to providing a space for people to experience Vermont's treasured landscape, as well as connect people with sustainable forestry practices. Now, this nonprofit carries on that work in the form of MFFC.

"Over time, our mission has evolved, our vision has evolved, and how we do the work has evolved, but that core sentiment is still there," Terry said. "Now we see our work as inspiring folks to develop curiosity, love, and responsibility for our working and natural lands."

Merck's largest programs deal with land management and experiential education.

"The more we can get those two things to overlap, the better," he said.

Farm-to-School

As Ruffa helped grow the organization over five years, Northshire Grows' connections with local schools grew, too.

For five years, Northshire Grows acted as the regional farm-to-school service provider for southwestern Vermont. The state's Farm-to-School movement is "a very robust one," Ruffa said. Furthermore, other states have begun basing their own Farm-to-School initiatives on Vermont's due to the state's success.

One of the programs Northshire Grows is involved with is Harvest of the Month. It's a project of Vermont F.E.E.D. (Food Education Every Day) that highlights a local product every month for local schools to feature. January featured beets, February's feature is cabbage, March is maple, and so on.

The students do taste tests and provide feedback to show what foods they like, what foods they don't like, and what foods they don't like yet but may like in the future.

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"It's getting kids used to trying new foods," Ruffa said.

The Southwestern Vermont School Supervisory Union is currently working toward using Harvest of the Month as a teaching tool. At the end of the school year, the district will hold a health fair complete with a smoothie bar. Of course, it will use locally-sourced milk and fruit from one of Merck's partner farms.

Through her new position at Merck, Ruffa says she hopes to be able to continue directing local schools to the appropriate Farm-to-School programs and determine what works best for each individual school.

"A lot of times people say, "oh we don't do Farm-to-School," but if you spend some time in the school, you actually find out that they have a killer composting program [or something of that nature,]" Ruffa said.

She also believes an important aspect of Farm-to-School is "keeping kids in the mix," asking their opinions and receiving feedback from them instead of only letting faculty make decisions. As a partner with local schools, MFFC can share resources and advice for best practices.

Both Northshire Grows and MFFC have been largely involved with local schools. With this new partnership, Ruffa and Terry both hope to expand Merck's reach into local schools even further.

"We anticipate we will deepen those connections with schools, build some connections with new schools, have some exciting impact through the work we do with those schools, and allow us to deepen those relationships to get more elementary aged Vermont students up into this landscape," Terry said.

Another goal of MFFC is to let local school children feel increasingly comfortable about being at Merck so that "it's their own," Ruffa said. With its ever-growing list of services, Merck aims to cultivate student interests in environmental conservation through field trips, educational programs, and more.

During its spring and fall education season, Merck typically welcomes at least one school class to the landscape every day, Terry said. In the summer, it hosts a number of summer camps. And every Saturday from April to October, Merck holds structured programs for adults and families to have educational farm experiences.

"We don't count it with a ticker but we estimate we're seeing about 12,000 people in the landscape every year," Terry said.

A welcome transition

Northshire Grows' Board of Directors, which was established in 2017, "fully supported" the transition to MFFC, Ruffa said.

"Northshire Grows was this scrappy network," she said. "We got a lot of work done and built this really great network, and we tried to shine the light on some important issues that hadn't been marketed. We helped to build that capacity, but we didn't have a place to do it."

But then the idea to join forces with Merck grew.

"So then, to have the opportunity to talk to this magical place that has [the land] but doesn't have some of the network development and partnerships that Northshire Grows did that's what we bring," Ruffa said. And that will only strengthen Merck."

"It's easy to see why it was a natural fit for Liz and Northshire Grows to blend part of [itself] into Merck," Rob said. "From Merck's perspective, we were excited about those programs that had a good fit, but first and foremost recognized as a partner in Liz [Ruffa]. It's a collective asset."

Ruffa will still consult with the four members of the Northshire Grows board- Dorset representative Linda Joy Sullivan, Smokey House Center Executive Director Jessie Pyles, State Senator Brian Campion, and Bennington Select Board Member Donald Campbell, who grew up with Merck as his backyard.

Ruffa will also still continue her statewide board positions on the Vermont Food Bank and the Board of Vermont Community Development. She is also on the Dorset Select Board.

Going forward, she is excited for what Merck can add to Northshire Grows' local food and school initiatives with its institutional support and on-site expertise.

"Advancement, to me, means communications, marketing, fundraising, and advancing the ball down the field, and that's what I feel I'm here to do." Ruffa said.

Christie Wisniewski can be reached at cwisniewski@benningtonbanner.com and at 802-447-7567, ext. 111.


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