Episode 6: Philanthropist Amy Tarlow-Lewis, Feeding Her Community

In this episode, I talk with Amy Tarlow-Lewis, Founder of Littleton Community Farm (LCF). Amy had a dream, relentlessly pursued that dream with “laughter and tears” and the support of many friends, family, neighbors, businesses, public entities, and even other nonprofits. She readily admits she did not do this alone and her guiding advice is to listen to the experts who know more than you do because, “there’s no way you can know everything about everything.” Today, the farm is a source of hunger relief and farm-based education, but Amy is thankful for what she received from the creation of the farm such as many new friends of all ages and backgrounds. Her gratitude is evident for every single person who put in time and energy to establishing LCF.

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Guest Info

Amy Tarlow-Lewis (She/Her) is Founder and Director of Development at Littleton Community Farm (LCF). Before founding LCF, Amy managed large-scale staffing projects for Randstad On-Site at Bose and holds an Economics degree from Simmons College in Boston, MA. She strongly believes in community farms as critical community assets and the healing power of connecting to nature and the wild. Amy spends much of her time with LCF writing grants, connecting to donors, writing monthly newsletters, overseeing the hunger relief programs, and supporting the farm’s strategic direction. Amy currently works part-time with the Middlesex Conservation District as a Program Coordinator, running education workshops that protect our natural resources for farmers, homeowners, and municipalities. She grew up in Concord, MA cutting through the woods and poison ivy to buy green beans and tomatoes for her mother at Brigham Farm, and learned to love the wild while skiing, hiking, swimming in the Mad River and playing with her two brothers in the White Mountains. Amy lives in Littleton, MA, with her husband, two sons, and a home that boasts a flock of ten chickens, two cats, beehives, and a Ewe named Felix that lives down the street. You can find Amy practicing power flow yoga, kayaking, mountain biking, and listening to audio-books while cooking and occasionally baking in her spare time.

Show notes

To support Littleton Community Farm, go here.

Other nonprofits referenced: New England Forestry Foundation and Littleton Conservation Trust.


JK: Hello and welcome to the You Are a Philanthropist podcast. This is Episode six. And today we’re speaking with Amy Tarlow Lewis, who is the founder of Littleton Community Farm.

JK: Amy, I’m thrilled to have you here.
ATL: Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
JK: You’re an inspiration for founding a nonprofit. And I want to hear about what Littleton Community Farm does.

ATL: So Littleton Community Farm is a nonprofit in Littleton, Mass. And we are dedicated to education and hunger relief. And we are located at New England Forest Foundation here in Littleton. Our lease about three acres. They have a few meadows which we occupy.

JK: What a wonderful way to coordinate with another non-profit. How did that happen?

ATL: So I was very fortunate. I am friends with a gentleman in town who sits on the board of Littleton, a conservation trust, and he had approached me and said that they would be really interested in talking about us having their farm with them because they had these unoccupied meadows. And it would be a really good partnership because both the New England Forestry Foundation and Littleton Community Farm have some overlapping missions. We’re dedicated to farming and preserving farmland and adding farmland to the agricultural inventory of land. But they are also very interested in preserving forests and protecting forest from development. And we’re both interested in educating the public about the importance of forest and farmland. So there’s a lot of really great overlapping missions between the two of us.

JK: I love that it was also another nonprofit that introduced you. It really shows the collaboration in your town. Can you tell me what other resources you tapped into in your town?

ATL: Yeah. So that’s a really great question. So we are really tapping into a variety of resources. Just to go back to our land, so New England Forestry Foundation has about 110 acres of land. And some of the trails that are through that property are owned by New England Forestry Foundation. But some of them are also owned by Littleton Conservation Trust. So having occupying that space with sort of a community farm within a community forest, which is really great because we want to be accessible and transparent to the public as possible. So we have a closed relationship with both of them. Additionally, the back end of the property is Long Lake, which is a lake that a lot of homeowners live around but also where people can swim at. So we even have a few CSA members who will kayak from their home over to the woods, leave their kayak, and then walk through a trail to come pick up their CSA and then go back home. So there’s really a lot of great foot traffic using low carbon footprint methods [laughter].

JK: Sounds really fun, very relaxing, and enjoyable.

ATL: It is. It is. It’s a really relaxing. You have a special little place that’s off the road, quiet, peaceful. It’s really a little hidden jewel in the woods.

JK: What other networks did you tap into to create this farm who were some of the other founders with you, or was it only you or who were early board members?

ATL: The first step that I took in organizing was someone said, “Well, you have this really great idea. You should have a meeting and try to get people to come to it.” So I said, “Okay.” So I actually reserved a spot in the library and I had contacted a bunch of my friends who I knew would support me. And then I had sort of network through town and asked people like, “Who do you know who really believes in farming? Who do you know who really believes in food access and converting land back into agricultural use?” And people sort of gave me their names. And then I just started calling people and I said I was going to have this meeting at the library in August. And I booked a room and you showed up and so did another 18 people. And there was a lot of enthusiasm and encouragement. And so that was sort of the first really lift that I got that this was a good idea that people would support. And then I continued to sort of have meetings and then people sort of whittled themselves down and then you end up with this core group. And we said, “Let’s do it.” And so we formed a board. And so there was a few people, including Jen, who joined as our first fundraising director. And then we started talking about writing a vision, writing a mission. One of my friends who had joined, Jen Branson, is an attorney and so she helped me walk through the process of filing our articles of incorporation and doing all that legal paperwork that we needed to do. Someone else who wasn’t a board member but was coming regularly had said that you need to file for your 501c3 and sort of gave me the directions on how to get that going. At the time, there was a federal shutdown. So it actually took about a year and a half for us to get our 501c3 status. We also had to raise money within the group to do those filings because all those filings do require a fee. So everyone just sort of put money out on the table.

ATL: Those were our first donors. Through a friend of a friend, they helped me with the 501c3 paperwork because at the time it was about a 32-page application, which had a lot of questions that I didn’t even know how to interpret or answer. And so this person came to my house and within three hours we had filled it out. The IRS is actually a really great resource because they have some of the basic boilerplate language that you need. So, for example, a conflict of interest, they have one that you can just use and run with. Again, the library was a really great resource for me. Our library, Lyttleton is wonderful. And so we started a seed library, which is essentially a seed bank. So we chose seed varieties of vegetables and flowers that were easy to save and easy to grow. And so what happens is people come to the library in the spring, they check out their seeds, they bring them home, they start their gardens, and at the end of the season, they save their seeds. So, for example, with beans, you would pick beans that tasted really good or really grew vivaciously or disease-resistant and then you would dry the beans out and then you would collect the seeds and then you’d return them to the seed bank. So it’s a loop. And when you’re selecting seeds, you are essentially strengthening the local seed variety, which is really important, especially with climate change, because some vegetables are doing better than other vegetables, depending on where you’re growing in the country and what the climate is like and how the climate is changing. So we’re strengthening our own local variety of food, which is important.

JK: That’s terrific. Just to recap, what I heard you say is you had three nonprofits support each other. Then you had public entity support you. Then you had town residents of at least 18 of you. And I’m curious if you had business support as well.

ATL: So the first business support report that we received really was to start the seed library. So a lot of seed companies are really excited about seed libraries. The little 10-seed library was actually the second seed library in Massachusetts. The first one was in Concord of which we modeled ours off of but there’s been a sprouting of seed libraries happening all across the country. There’s a really significant one out in California that was really the model for everybody. And seed companies were really excited that this was happening. And so they were donating seeds to these nonprofits and these libraries so they could get them started. So we received a lot of free seeds and then we had people buying seeds for us as sort of donors which is really wonderful. It was, later on, when we started really trying to fundraise that we would approach local businesses for their support. And then we started running events and then we’d ask them to be our corporate sponsors.

JK: How long ago has Littleton Community Farm started from the first visit you had with those 18 people to today?

ATL: Yeah. So the idea really started in 2013. The first meeting that I held was in August or September of that year. 2015 was our first growing season. So as of this year or last year rather was our sixth growing season so we’re moving into our seventh growing season. The first two years between twenty thirteen and twenty fifteen were really critical years because we were really spending the time organizing ourselves and fundraising, filing the appropriate paperwork with the state government and federal government that we need to do again was really critical in helping us raise those initial dollars because no one who was either volunteering to help out or is currently on the board had had significant fundraising experience. And so she really helped us map out how to go through the process which is really important because farming is really challenging to get into. The two biggest challenges of getting into farming are access to capital and access to land. And within two years we had solved, cracked that nut which is pretty impressive. We were really fortunate to have New England Forestry Foundation be so excited to receive us on their land. And Jen was really helpful in getting the first $25,000 raised so that we could do all the basic necessary– buy the most basic things that we needed to get the farm up and running like compost and seeds and hoses and basic tools that we needed. We were also really fortunate at the time to have a woman by the name of Brittaney Sidway Overshiner who was the farm manager at the time at Medway Community Farm and so she was hooked up with a bunch of area farmers. And so she was really critical in helping us get some really critical large pieces of equipment that we needed to get going like some plows so we could plow through the field and get it up and running and just really helping us network because we didn’t have a tractor, we didn’t have any heavy equipment, and so she was really critical in helping us get the field ready to grow. She was also really critical in helping us hire our first farmer so we could start farming and writing that job description and helping us interview the farmers so we could get the right person.

JK: One of the things I like to encourage my listeners about is to do anything they can with however much time they can. And hearing the story of how people just pitched in from giving you free law advice or helping steer you in the right direction with, you know, whatever you needed really shows the strength of your community particularly You’re a crucial piece, not with just the idea and the time you committed to it, but also your network, and that’s something we heard about from our first guest in episode two, Tanya Gotha, who said that she just really relied on her network, and it’s so important to show up. That is what we heard from John Fisher in our last episode. And I know from experience I meet a lot of great friends. You know, you and I would never have met, and so it’s a wonderful community like opportunity to make friends and enjoy that camaraderie and that excitement. And I know that first time you opened up in that growing season was a real celebration, wasn’t it?

ATL: It absolutely was. And there are so many benefits to being involved in a nonprofit, whether you start one, whether you donate to one, whether you give them your time and your energy and your thought. I mean, for me personally, I’m so thankful that I did this, that I believed in myself to do this and that I really leaned in hard with it because I met people like Jen, who I never would have met before. I do have two children, but they’re several years older than Jen’s. And just because of the age gap, I probably would have never have met her. I have become friends with people who are old enough to be my parents, who I’ve become friends with. And again, I never really would have reason to have met them before. So I’ve really gotten to know a really wide swath of people of my community, and I continue to meet people in my community, which I really enjoy doing. I have really great conversations and really my focus of my work is to really do the fundraising. But I do spend a little bit of time on the farm. I do make it out there to do some volunteer work, like weeding, for example. It’s just really exciting, and I really can’t encourage people enough to lean in their network, grow their network. It’s also really important to say thank you over and over and over again to people for their time and their energy and how their effort and time or money has really made a difference and an impact that keeps people engaged and coming back. And quite honestly, I am so thankful for everyone who’s ever contributed to this organization at any level, whether they donated five dollars, whether they donated a thousand dollars, whether they volunteered for two hours, whether they volunteer for 30 hours a year. Without them, the farm would absolutely not be where it is. I guess there’s that old saying, if you want to go fast, go alone, but want to get there, go together. And going together really is the best way to go. It’s actually interesting. I started this farm, but I actually have no farming experience. I have no gardening experience. My husband actually asked me not to touch the plants. The only, really, experience I have is eating vegetables and cooking vegetables. So I think it’s been really important for me to recognize where my expertise in my wheelhouse lies, what are the boundaries of my knowledge, and really seeking out the people who can fill in those gaps and really being willing to listen to them, respect their experience and knowledge and take it on board and to find a way to integrate it, because there’s no way you can know everything about everything. And that’s been a really critical piece to getting this organization up and going because it’s a collective effort.

JK: I want to just take a commercial break. I want to share with my listeners about something that I did so that they can be inspired to be volunteers and donors in their communities to both individuals and non-profits. So we’ll be right back.

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JK: We’re back. I want to thank you again for being here. And today we’re speaking with Amy Tarlow-Lewis, who is the founder of Littleton Community Farm. So what is your background in? Did you work for a nonprofit before? Tell us about your career.

ATL: Yeah. So my undergraduate work is from Simmons College in Boston. I went there when it was an all-women’s college. And I got my undergraduate degree in economics, never really planning to be an economist, but I felt like it was a really good balance of qualitative and quantitative skills, so math skills, a lot of writing, a lot of reading, which is the direction I took my economics degree in. And then I ended up actually in human resources. I managed large-scale staffing projects. So I worked for Randstad, which is essentially a staffing company. One of their largest clients is Bose here in Massachusetts, and so I sat on-site at Bose, and I managed one of their large-scale staffing projects. So every year they scale up their hiring to put seasonal staff in all their stores across the country, so I managed that project. It’s obviously remote. It’s all across the country. And so I managed all of those pieces and helped develop the pieces for that program. And then I had our two kids, and I left the workforce for a while.

ATL: And then I really just felt like I wanted to do something. And I kind of saw this opportunity to create this nonprofit because I feel very strongly in preserving land, preserving agricultural land, putting more agricultural land back into the agricultural inventory. And I really believe in equity, whether it’s food access, education, healthcare. And because Littleton is about 40, 45 minutes west of Boston, and it is still very much an agricultural town – we have three really large farms here in town and a lot of conservation land – there’s really a lot of open space. And so when I looked around my community, I just saw this opportunity to create a community farm. There are several community farms here in Massachusetts, and I had always been enamored with them. And I just really saw this opportunity to create one here in Littleton that would service people of Nashua Valley and in Lowell because there was sort of a hole here. So I had kind of identified that space that I felt like our community could fill. And that’s how I started.

JK: Amy, it’s really so inspirational and I really enjoy hearing all of our stories about how $5 makes a difference. One hour makes a difference. Just getting started, just showing up, not having the skills, never doing this before. This is really attainable. And sometimes once it’s up and running, and it seems so successful, and you’ve been doing it for years, it it makes it sound like it was easier than it was. And I know there was a struggle there. And I’m curious, what would you say to our listeners who maybe have thought about their dreams for creating a nonprofit or have thought about doing more volunteer work in their local communities? What would you say to them if they’re just thinking about doing something like this?

ATL: Yeah, so that’s a really great question. So I think it’s really important for people to really evaluate what they feel they can give and what their time, and their energy, and their resources are when they look out into their community or the greater, wider community, however they feel they want to identify that and really think about what problem they see in the community that they would like to solve and change. And that’s a very personal decision. There are so many amazing nonprofits out there. And I think you need to align yourself with what you think is really you’re passionate about because there are so many problems out there that need to be solved. And then I would really think about how you feel that you can best make change to that problem that you see.

ATL: And so for some people, they have additional moneys that they feel that they can give. And that is the best way for them to make change. And for other people, they may feel that their time is the best way of making change. And I think that’s also a very personal decision. And from there, I would really think about if you’re going to donate money, is to spend some time resourcing organizations and find ones that are impactful, that are using donor money well, that are really making change in some way. And then if you are to consider volunteering your time, I would really look around and see what organizations are aligned with your passion and your interest, and do some research on them, and then contact them and ask them, are they looking for volunteers and what areas do they need volunteers. And then at that point, you can tell them if you feel that you might be a potential match for them and start that conversation.

ATL: In terms of starting a nonprofit, I think some nonprofits can start very small and stay very small for a long period of time, and you can keep it very manageable. And some nonprofits, the work just requires just to kind of it just gets very big very quickly. I think you need to really evaluate that because it is a huge time commitment. It is a lifestyle choice. It was, and I will admit, it was very difficult to do this with two young children. When I started, I had one kid still in diapers, one kid just wearing night diapers. I had a husband that worked long, demanding hours. But I was a stay at home mom at the time. And so I felt like I had the time. But juggling all of those pieces was honestly pretty stressful at times. I’m going to fully admit there were times that I cried and times when I laughed. But you have to really be willing to sort of ride all those waves and sort of see it through.

JK: I love your advice. And one of the things I ask my guests is what is your vision for a better world?

ATL: Wow, that’s a really big question. So in terms of Littleton Community Farm, what are– the vision of our farm is that through our food donation programs, that we are improving community health. So that we are putting more healthy nutritional food into the community, particularly the communities that are underserved and for people of color, and that we are contributing towards decreasing diabetes, decreasing obesity, improving cardiovascular health, improving overall well-being, that if there are people who are already buying vegetables, that we are supplementing those vegetables and therefore decreasing their grocery dollars. For people who are underserved, who are struggling with income, that’s a huge money saver for them as well.

ATL: The main driver of food insecurity in this country happens to be income. It’s not war. It’s not political strife. It’s income. So by putting more food into the community, we are essentially supplementing people’s income. And so we think those are the changes that this organization seeks to achieve.

JK: That’s terrific. And I want to end today with thanking you for serving your community. Thank you for sharing with our listeners.

ATL: You’re very welcome. It’s a joy to do it.

JK: Thank you, Amy. I think that’s such a good point. I do talk about how giving is selfish and it’s kind of built into the human innate qualities where it feels good to give. I’m sure you can agree.

ATL: Absolutely.

JK: So I always like plugging a nonprofit at the end because I really get excited when people join with you. So if anybody is interested in donating to Littleton Community Farm, seeing more hunger relief in their community, if you would please go to littletoncommunityfarm.org.

ATL: Wonderful. Thank you for that. We would welcome anyone to come join us.

JK: Thank you so much, Amy.
ATL: You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.

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