Shared history, shared crops

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MANCHESTER — For Danby's Smokey House Center, a farm partnership with the local Currier Memorial School seemed only natural.

The center, which aims maintain their extensive landscape while engaging the community, touts over 35 years of work-based learning programs to strengthen community and build up individuals. Smokey House's Community Farm Project, now in its second year, engages local youth, visitors, and volunteers to grow fall produce to bolster local food security.

"We've got 5,000 acres of protected land, so it's a big chunk of property to manage," said Jesse Pyles, executive director of the Smokey House Center. "We really believe in a working landscape, so we lease land to private farmers as well as managing the woodlands for timber harvest and wildlife management."

In 2016 alone the Smokey House grew and donated over 8,000 pounds of fall storage crops including carrots, squash, and pumpkins with the help of over 200 volunteers. Since the program's inception, students from Danby's Currier Memorial School, K-6, have visited the Smokey House for springtime planting and fall harvest through a program known as "Currier Supported Agriculture," or "CSA."

"We've always used the land here as a backdrop for learning with volunteers, visitors, and local youth helping us grow food to give away," said Pyles. "Currier School has been a great partner in the last couple of years, coming up to help us plant and harvest."

"It just seems like a natural fit to be able to work right here with these local kids, to have them be able to come on a school bus and have these incredible experiences with us," said Farm Educator Jamie Lombardo. "A lot of these kids, between 54 and 58 families, participate in our CSA too."

When students are finished harvesting crops, food is distributed within the Currier School community. With approximately 75 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced lunches, the program has had an immense impact according to Principal Carolyn Parillo.

"Jesse and Jamie prepare six to eight weeks worth of crop shares that are given to anyone that asks in our school community," said Parillo. "Last week they showed up with 50 to 60 bags that were well prepared, they had them all organized for the kids, and provided recipes for the families to prepare the food."

While the partnership is mutually beneficial for the community organizations, that connection is strengthened by a shared history.

"The Currier family gifted Currier school to the Danby community, but they also gifted everything you're seeing here," said Parillo, surveying the vast landscape of the Smokey House Center. "We really wanted the children to know the history of the Curriers, and everything they've done for us."

A shared history

In 1958, Stephen and Audrey Currier purchased the land that would later become the Smokey House Center after seeing a photo in "Vermont Life Magazine." As they worked to preserve their land in Danby, the Currier's dedicated a swath of their inherited wealth to the creation of the Taconic Foundation, a charitable organization named for the mountain range cradling their homestead.

"They were pretty amazing people," said Parillo. "One of their big passions was to support children that were more at risk."

In pursuance of that passion, the Curriers presented $80,000 to the Danby School Board in 1964 for the development of an elementary school. In September of 1966, the Currier Memorial School opened its doors for the first time.

"Mr. Currier went out of his way to go to the food manager to say that he didn't want any children to go starving," said Parillo. "He said, `if you've got children that need money for food let me know, and I'll pay for their lunch.'"

Just months later however, the philanthropic couple vanished.

"The school opened in September, and they mysteriously disappeared in February of that same school year," said Parillo. "They were on a plane, but their plane was never found. It was somewhere near the Bermuda Triangle."

Through programs like their farm partnership, both the Smokey House and the Currier Memorial School hopes to continue the late couple's mission.

"Prior to their disappearance, they showed how much they truly cared about kids and families," said Parillo. "Working with Jesse and his team is a huge gift. I'm just so thankful that the community has this opportunity."

Mutual benefit

On Tuesday, students from Currier Memorial School visited the Smokey House Center to harvest the potato crops they had planted in the spring. For the kids, getting outside is half of the fun.

"All these kids just get filthy, and then we send them back to school," said Pyles.

"These kids come and harvest the potatoes," said Lombardo. "Then on Friday I'm going to deliver these bags of food to them that they get to take home and share with their families, which is incredible."

According to Parillo, the program also serves to enrich the student's learning experience alongside their diets.

"We knew that the kids would be so much more interested in that food coming home if they had some part in it," said Parillo.

By being involved with both the planting and harvesting processes, students gain a more nuanced understanding of food production and systems. Physically, the children benefit from outdoor exercise and an increase in healthy meals as well, according to Parillo.

"To me this is a great outdoor lab for project based learning," said Parillo. "There's a ton of benefits for the kids, and they just get so excited about it. It's like digging for gold."

"I absolutely, positively love having kids try, eat, and experience new things," said Lombardo. "We are growing food primarily to supplement hunger relief, but also just to be able to be a presence in the local community."

The partnership with Currier Memorial School, according to Pyles, is one of many manifestations of the Smokey House Center's commitment to community.

"For me it's about getting people here, making a connection to each other, doing the work together, and also connecting people to the land," said Pyles. "Hopefully they'll want to take care of it, and each other, in that same way."

Reach Cherise Madigan at 802-490-6471.

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