SACO — The Ecology School today announced a 200-acre addition to its regenerative agriculture learning campus at River Bend Farm located alongside the Saco River. The environmental living and learning center will use the increased acreage to expand opportunities for hands-on education in sustainable and eco-friendly farming operations.
In gaining the additional acreage, The Ecology School will be able to grow more food with a wider variety of crops, including grains, livestock and vegetable oil, while expanding conservation research, education opportunities, and community engagement and collaborative partnerships in pursuit of climate-resilient, equitable, and healthy community food systems. This acquisition comes as The Ecology School celebrates its 25th anniversary in the community following its founding in 1998.
The property purchase is the result of donations from American Farmland Trust and the Hannaford Charitable Foundation, which each contributed $100,000 to The Ecology School, as well as funding from private sources.
The Ecology School was joined by local officials, as well as representatives from the American Farmland Trust and Hannaford Charitable Foundation, today at River Bend Farm to formally announce the acquisition and expansion plans.
In celebration of this historic moment in The Ecology School’s history, representatives from American Farmland Trust, Hannaford Charitable Foundation and The Ecology School each contributed to the installation of a native plant “guild”— a community of plants working together to enhance each plant’s natural function. Each plant is native to Maine and will support pollinators and produce food for humans and other animals. This new addition to the immersive River Bend Farm campus landscape/foodscape will enhance The Ecology School’s agroecology lessons that teach how the science of ecology can be applied to sustainable agriculture and is a perfect representation of The Ecology School’s AgroEcology for Resilient Communities farming practices and the collaborative partnership between the three organizations.
“During this next decade it will be crucial that our regional and national food systems become more climate-smart and work to support local communities, conservation and to address hunger,” said Drew Dumsch, president and CEO of The Ecology School. “We are honored to be partnering with Hannaford and the American Farmland Trust to create more public engagement and inspirational, hands-on education focused on this important work.”
The farming expansion marks a significant milestone for The Ecology School, which has helped thousands of youth and adult program participants gain a deeper understanding of climate-smart agriculture, conservation and regenerative farming practices since its new campus opened in April 2021. Approximately 3,500 students visit River Bend Farm annually for hands-on learning opportunities that inspire new ways of looking at food, farming, nature, communities and conservation through the study of ecosystems, food systems and sustainability.
“This 200-acre land acquisition presents a tremendous opportunity for The Ecology School to expand its already robust hands-on education in agroecology and agroforestry while ensuring that farmland is protected for future agricultural use,” said Amanda Beal, commissioner, Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “The Ecology School is clearly a leader not just in demonstrating sustainable farming practices but also in inspiring new ways of approaching agriculture and our food systems as a whole.”
A portion of funding for the acquisition comes from the American Farmland Trust, which protects farmland and ranchland, and promotes environmentally sound farming practices.
“AFT is proud to contribute to such a unique institution as The Ecology School,” said AFT President and CEO John Piotti. “This school will help produce future farmers and teach them the practical skills necessary to run a farm operation. I cannot think of anything more valuable than shaping the future of farming and The Ecology School encapsulates that.”
Another significant partner in the acquisition is the Hannaford Charitable Foundation, a philanthropic arm of Hannaford Supermarkets dedicated to creating and supporting healthy communities. In addition to supporting the land acquisition, Hannaford recently donated $250,000 to The Ecology School’s AgroEcology for Resilient Communities Project, an innovative program that addresses climate change, food systems challenges and food insecurity within the community.
“As a grocery retailer, sustainability is a core pillar of our work and we are deeply committed to reducing waste and protecting the environment,” said Hannaford Charitable Foundation Board of Directors Chair Peter Forester, who also serves as senior vice president of merchandising for the grocery retailer. “The Ecology School has truly innovated the way that people explore and connect with food systems. The Hannaford Charitable Foundation is pleased to support The Ecology School as it expands both its footprint and opportunities for the community to learn about the importance of regenerative agriculture in building a better, greener future for us all.”
The Ecology School’s original River Bend Farm campus was 105 acres and the expansion includes the neighboring 201.9-acre Fogg Family Farmland, which is under an agricultural conservation easement with Maine Farmland Trust and encompasses the rest of the “bend in the river,” transforming the campus into a 307-acre living and learning laboratory that supports sustainable food systems programming for communities across the Northeast. The additional acreage allows The Ecology School to expand its agroecology farming operations, workforce training, educational programs, conservation and agricultural research plus support collaborative partnerships. Additional fresh food production will benefit program participants through The Ecology School’s Farm-to Table Initiative, as well food pantry donations to support community members experiencing food insecurity. With expanded land access, The Ecology School looks forward to continuing to build collaborative partnerships with community organizations and businesses to promote resilient, healthy, and equitable community food systems.