Cover Story

Allegheny Mountain School: The Power to Do Good Through Food

by John Bruce, Contributing Writer


John Bruce photo Courtesy The Recorder Newspaper.

Getting down to earth with the local food movement is the fruit of a powerful educational initiative that sprouts on a western Virginia mountaintop and spreads its roots far beyond the Alleghenies.

Welcome to the Allegheny Mountain School, “an experiential fellowship program designed to serve our region’s communities in developing a more secure food system,” its tagline says. As one of its senior fellows succinctly puts it, the school teaches “the power to do good through food.”

With a core mission not unlike that of an electric cooperative, Allegheny Mountain School essentially works to promote self-empowerment. But instead of delivering electricity through consumer ownership, the multi-phase educational program teaches its fellows ways of empowering others to produce their own healthy food, and thereby improve quality of life. Its propelling a magical momentum by teaching students and teachers alike how to produce real and delicious results.

The Allegheny Mountain School’s disciplined approach to training consists of two phases. The formative first phase lasts six months, from April to November, on village campuses in Highland County, at an elevation of 4,200 feet. The enrollment is limited to fewer than a dozen fellows. A staff and variety of workshop instructors support the fellows as they study sustainable food cultivation, and restorative, nourishing traditions.

In the second phase, senior fellows work a year for partner nonprofit organizations in Highland, the Shenandoah Valley and Charlottesville. They aim to satisfy a vision of promoting environmentally and economically healthy communities where foods grow close to where people live, and nutritious, fresh food is available to all. The fellows develop community gardens, teach cooking and nutrition, and advocate sustainable land use.

On Allegheny Mountain are cabins, gardens, and sprawling grounds featuring upper and lower campuses one-third-mile apart. The upper campus consists of kitchens, dining hall, dormitories and meeting facilities. A log cabin with loft serves as a library and studio. Then, there are kitchen and experimental gardens. The lower campus features larger gardens, chicken coop, bee house, tool sheds, root cellar, outdoor classroom and hoop house.

Gardens on the upper and lower campuses serve as outdoor classrooms where fellows not only grow most of their own food, but learn best growing practices and community leadership skills. The hoop house, filled with vegetables growing on the ground and vertically, helps sustain the fellows’ food-growing efforts beyond frost and during fall and winter high-elevation chill. Before the seminal six-month program’s November commencement, fellows host a public presentation of their individual research projects.

Looking back on Allegheny Mountain School’s first-phase experience, one fellow says the school teaches far more than how to grow food.

 “I will admit that when I first joined the Allegheny Mountain School fellowship program a little part of me was running away from the traditional career path of a nine-to-five office job,” says Emily Melvin, a senior fellow. “But as I learned about the mission of the school and the power to do good through food, I became a passionate champion of education through gardening. Now I’m running a full and steady sprint towards something I genuinely believe in.”

Melvin’s high energy level typifies the powerful human force behind the Allegheny Mountain School’s positive impact on communities beyond Highland County. Ellen Butchart, program director, explains that phase-two fellows have been assigned to projects where they are making a positive difference in the Shenandoah Valley and elsewhere in the region.

“Our mission is to train fellows to work on projects that increase access to healthy food in a variety of communities,” Butchart enthuses. “Phase one is only a piece of that story and only a part of the impact we have.”

For instance, graduate fellow Lisa Millette has noted significant growth in the number of children who are learning about local food at Project GROWS, a community farm and educational facility in Verona where she works alongside other fellows. More than quadruple the number of children visited the teaching farm, and its food production more than tripled, from 2012 to 2013 with the help of Allegheny Mountain School.

“Without our partnership with Allegheny Mountain School, none of this would be possible and Project GROWS impact on the children and youth in our community, while being essential, would be much smaller,” says Ryan Blosser, executive director of Project GROWS.

In collaboration with Staunton Creative Community Fund, the Valley Conservation Council has launched a food entrepreneurial loan program that was the brainchild of Charlie Aller, an Allegheny Mountain School fellow.

Another fellow, Cabell Hodges, ran a market garden with New Community Project residents in Harrisonburg that supplied produce to a number of local restaurants and used proceeds to raise homes for new immigrant families and the homeless. Senior fellow Ian Sawyer is working there this year with homeless people on issues of food security and shelter, as well as teaching residents how to grow food for sale. New Community Project Harrisonburg “combines sustainable agriculture with groundbreaking backyard environmental projects and outreach to the community,” its website says.

The Highland Center, a nonprofit in Monterey, serves as fiscal sponsor and program manager of the Allegheny Mountain School. In its 16th year, The Highland Center’s Farmer’s Market saw a huge increase in sales last year — due to the increase in availability of local meat and bi-weekly demonstrations by the fellows on sustainable food practices.

The Highland Center’s employee and Allegheny Mountain School graduate Jessa Fowler has seen a huge increase in the success of food-related school workshops, programming and community participation. “Allegheny Mountain School has both long-term and direct impacts to the center,” explains Betty Mitchell, executive director of The Highland Center. “In 2013, as a senior fellow, Jessa worked as local foods coordinator for The Highland Center. Her work enabled us to expand our relationship with the school, build a school garden and renovate a forgotten greenhouse, and launch a website helping connect producers to consumers. We were thrilled with Jessa’s work, and she is now the Highland Center’s youth and local foods coordinator.

Fowler points out that the fellows in themselves are a community asset. It’s amazing how the fellows can really expand what we can do in a small place from demonstrating how to prepare fresh, healthy foods at the farmer’s market, sharing innovative research projects and ideas or simply adding younger energy to our community.”

The Allegheny Mountain School is helping reverse a longtime trend of a declining and aging populace in Highland, says Lloyd Bird, president of The Highland Center. “Allegheny Mountain School reverses our trend of population decrease,” Bird says. “It brings youth, positive energy and excitement for life to our area.”

“Another measure of Allegheny Mountain School’s impact is the fact that many projects the fellows helped launch have received funding to sustain them,” Butchart says. “Five of our fellows from last year have been hired back as staff at the organizations where they worked.” They include Trevor Piersol, Allegheny Mountain School project manager; Kayla MacLachlan, school program manager; Lisa Millette, Project Grows programs manager, Jenna Clark, Project Grows director of operations; and Fowler.

Butchart is excited that Allegheny Mountain School is once again working with a number of partner organizations. Senior fellows have been assigned to several nonprofit organizations that are either in Highland or within driving distance.

She said that this year, senior fellow Mandy Henkler is working on new nutrition programs at the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank in Verona.

“The impact on the community has already shown to be very positive with the work past senior fellows accomplished, and we hope to continue on with the tradition to make small positive changes with a large ripple effect,” Henkler says.

Whitney Newton McDermott works at City Schoolyard Gardens in Charlottesville, which manages gardens and teaches garden curriculum in all the local elementary schools and the middle school.

At Valley Conservation Council, Kate Hopkins is working on agriculture projects centered on protecting farmland and improving its health for food production in partnership with Mary Baldwin College. Ben Samuelson, Emily Melvin and Trevor Piersol are helping build a center for garden curriculum development, located on The Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind campus, for teachers throughout the state (please see related story, page 34.)

 “And, we will continue working with the Highland schools this year, as Paul Krysik, the new Allegheny Mountain School village manager works alongside The Highland Center’s youth and local foods coordinator, Jessa Fowler, to teach cooking and nutrition to local high school students,” Butchart says. “In Staunton, we are working in partnership with Mary Baldwin College and their environmental education graduate program and Staunton City Schools. At Project Grows in Verona, fellows are working specifically on garden curriculum and activities to combat childhood obesity.

 “We are interested in helping institutions develop more sustainable and local food for their cafeterias. In addition, we will continue to bring workshops to the communities we work in whenever we can,” she says.

In Richmond last year, a fellow was instrumental in teaching nutrition, ecology and economics to all age groups at Byrd House Market, Grace Arents Community Garden and Byrd House Farmlet that comprise the William Byrd Community House. The fellow developed a sustainable farmlet for people who utilize the social service agency, Butchart said.

As fellows complete their training on Allegheny Mountain and complete their yearlong second-phase training, a large part of the work involves utilizing community leadership skills to help negotiate with local residents to help work gardens.

“Who knew that experiencing working situations at the Allegheny Mountain School would teach them to be diplomats?” Butchart said. “What a wonderful way to engage people of different generations, by bringing people together around food and teaching them how to be a culture together.”

The Allegheny Mountain School experience is geared toward helping fellows find successful career paths. During their second phase, fellows develop portfolios that become the foundations of in-depth resumes.

“The broader long-term impact of the program is the positive energy, diverse backgrounds and curiosity for the natural world that the phase-one fellows bring to our community,” The Highland Center’s Mitchell says. “We love the fact that Highland holds a special place in their hearts, although their placements might take them beyond Highland. In the past month one of the inaugural fellows purchased property in Highland. Another, Sarah Collins, is working at The Highland Center as our community projects coordinator.”

Highland Board of Supervisors member David Blanchard took one of the public tours of the campuses that the school has hosted on many occasions. “I think it’s an asset to the county to bring young folks in here,” he said of Allegheny Mountain School. “I think it’s good.”

In April, a new group of fellows will arrive, and another season on the mountain begins. The school advertises through websites and radio. For information about the school, and to apply for enrollment, please access Tour information may be obtained by calling 540-468-2300 or emailing

John Bruce is Highland County community news editor for The Recorder newspaper of Bath and Highland counties ( He has covered the Allegheny Mountain School since its inception.

Healthy Foods Are Focus of Garden-Based Project

The Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind (VSDB) Educational Farm is taking shape in Staunton, thanks to help from the Allegheny Mountain School. A school project team consisting of senior fellows Emily Melvin and Ben Samuelson, under the direction of Trevor Piersol, project manager, is tackling the job.

Once completed, the farm will serve as a regional hub for classes, resources, and curricula related to garden-based education for schoolteachers across Virginia, Piersol explains. “In 2014 we plan to host our first summer course for educators on how to build and utilize school gardens. Other projects will include working with VSDB teachers and students to expand the school’s garden-based education program, as well as hosting a series of workshops and events for the local community.”

Piersol was involved in the early stages of the project in 2013 as an Allegheny Mountain School senior fellow. He was asked to serve as project manager on completion of his fellowship.

 “I have been excited about this project from the beginning because I wholeheartedly believe that when we integrate growing food into the way we teach and learn, we all become healthier, happier people. The benefits of garden-based education are wide-ranging and far-reaching, especially for children,” he says.

The VSDB Educational Farm came about when Nancy Armstrong, VSDB superintendent, approached Allegheny Mountain School with the idea to use a part of the VSDB lower campus for an educational farm, Piersol says.

“Together we came up with a vision to use the farm as a center for garden-based education,” he says. “We plan to bring in experts on garden-based education from around the state to teach the workshops at our farm. Because this is a new project we are still developing the structure of our programming,” he says.

Piersol, 26, is a Richmond native who earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia before graduating from the Allegheny Mountain School fellowship program in 2013. He is a practicing permaculture designer and educator. He received a permaculture design teaching certificate from the Permaculture Wellness Institute in Staunton.

Permaculture is a design science that enables us to build systems that both meet human needs and improve the health of the planet,” he explains. “We will be using permaculture design extensively in the development of the VSDB Educational Farm.”

Team member Emily Melvin says she is impressed by the project’s possibilities. “I am a part of this effort because of its huge potential to reach out and benefit many different groups and communities in the area,” Melvin says. “The VSDB project will provide hands-on experiential education not only to deaf and blind students, but also to teachers and the surrounding community. It’s a wonderful opportunity to use garden-based education to teach people about nourishing their minds as well as bodies.”

For his part, Ben Samuelson is ecstatic over his new job with the VSDB project.

“This new site needs a lot of action to get the soil up to scratch,” he says.

“I saw that I would probably thrive with a project like this, and it happens that a dream of mine is to start a farm. There are a quite a few programs where people with my qualifications can get experience teaching and directing young people in community and outdoor courses. But, it is very, very difficult to get a shot at building up a farm from scratch and also have the support that we do with the VSDB project.”        

To learn about VSDB, please access 


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