HOLYOKE "Remarkable" is how Allison Neher of CISA characterizes the groundbreaking work being done at the Nuestras Raices Farm in the city.
"I see working for CISA as an opportunity to work with wonderful, like-minded people, while making a real difference," said Neher during an interview with Reminder Publications, referring to those in particular at the farm at 329 Main St.
Based in South Deerfield, CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture) is a community organization comprised of farmers, consumers, and concerned citizens working together to sustain agriculture and the unique rural character of Western Massachusetts. CISA is the creator of Senior FarmShare, the Pioneer Valley Women in Agriculture Network, Farm to School projects, a workplace CISA program, and the 'Be A Local Hero, Buy Locally Grown ' public awareness campaign.
Neher has only been at her new job since Sept. 10 as a program assistant, but she says she knows it's the right fit for her. Her role will open up opportunities to work with the Senior FarmShare, Farm2City, and Institutional Buying programs.
"I hope to bring new insights into the great programs CISA offers," she said, adding, "the office provides many opportunities to collaborate on projects and there is always room for innovation and new ideas here."
Neher graduated from Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley last spring with a major in Environmental Studies and a minor in Biology.
"My concentration throughout college was on sustainable agriculture," she added. "I grew up in an agricultural community in rural Washington State, so agriculture has always been an important issue for me."
Throughout college, Neher noted she had the opportunity to work with a wide variety of local organizations and farms through school projects and volunteer work. Her projects included mentoring growers at the Nuestras Raices Farm in Holyoke, as well as providing expertise in soil testing at the site. In addition, she volunteered her time in a variety of roles at the Food Bank Farm in Hadley, and lent a hand to the Gardening the Community project in Springfield.
Neher explained that CISA is working on strengthening its presence in Hampden County which is what attracted her to the position.
"CISA works on a very local level," she said. "CISA works to ensure the survival of local farms and to increase access to locally grown farm products. The organization runs a variety of programs in order to approach the entire local food system from farm to plate."
She noted that as Pioneer Valley residents, we are receiving a "great gift" of sustained local agriculture from CISA, whether we recognize it or not.
"I live in Holyoke and would love to have more local, fresh fruits and vegetables available in our grocery stores and markets," she said. "CISA's programs have had a lot of success in Hampden County and hopefully we will be able to expand on that."
Neher noted that the programs she has been working on this fall will help increase access to local produce to people in Western Massachusetts.
"It has been a real pleasure to be able to be a part of these programs, particularly when I get to work with residents of my own town," she added.
Through the Senior FarmShare program, Neher said she has worked directly with several groups in Hampden County, including the Holyoke Council on Aging, spreading the word about the importance of buying locally grown foods which in turn strengthens local economies and communities, and can make a difference.
Neher said CISA is currently completing an evaluation of the 2007 Senior FarmShare program that includes input from 300 participating seniors throughout the region, as well as following up with each of the farmers and site managers. Her other project is working on a guide for local farmers.
"The guide will take farmers through the process of becoming authorized food stamp vendors," she said. "This will make fresh, local produce more available to all residents of the Pioneer Valley regardless of their income level."
Enthusiasm abounds from this young woman who has a passion for promoting and sustaining local working farms.
"We're on the cutting edge of agriculture here and I'm happy to be a part of it," she added, noting that the Nuestras Raices Farm has been working on a project to cultivate medicinal plants that are typically grown in southern climates.
For more information on volunteer opportunities with CISA, or information on CISA programs, visit www.buylocalfood.com.