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Growing veggies—and community

Lessons learned and taught by Sarah Berquist ’11, ’15MS

Ten years ago, Sarah Berquist ’11, ’15MS had just graduated with her first degree (of two) from UMass Amherst. Now she is an award-winning lecturer, advisor, and program coordinator for the sustainable food and farming program in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture. But what happened in between? What led her back to UMass? And what has she learned along the way?

Berquist was kind enough to share her story—and her wisdom—with UMass Magazine.

Q: As an undergraduate student, you received the Lotta Crabtree Scholarship. How did that impact your studies and career path?

A: Scholarships were essential in me being able to attend college. Because I entered my studies at UMass as an out-of-state student with financial need, every bit of support that I could get from scholarships was important. College is expensive and debt is very real. I continue to be grateful for the support I received from the Lotta Crabtree Scholarship as an undergraduate, as well as a fellowship as a graduate student at UMass Amherst.

Q: As an undergraduate, you became the Amherst Farmers’ Market manager. What did you learn from that?

A: Managing the Amherst Farmers' Market as a student was such a significant experience in both my personal and professional life. I learned how to communicate effectively, how to listen, how to engage with the local community, and perhaps most importantly, I felt a sense of belonging that persists even when I visit the market now, 10 years later. The farmers in our community work hard, grow amazing food, produce quality crafts, and are kind people. This experience clarified for me early in my career how fulfilling and important it is to be a part of my local community. I strive to cultivate a sense of belonging and community in my classes and in the sustainable food and farming major as program coordinator.

Q: You also co-founded and managed the Food for All program. What have you learned through that work?

A: The Food for All program has now transitioned to the Student Farm Food Access Initiative and operates more collaboratively with the UMass Student Farm, with faculty support from Amanda Brown (who is amazing). Supporting this project’s growth and continued evolution has taught me so much. I think one of a few key lessons is that “change moves at the speed of trust.” In my experience, change at a big institution like UMass can feel like it moves so slowly. However, over time we have built meaningful relationships with the community and leadership at Not Bread Alone, the Amherst Survival Center, and the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and have connected a lot of students to engage in their local communities.

I have also learned to be critically aware of how my own privilege and social identity impact my approach to engaging and organizing in community.

Many of these students have continued this work beyond graduation and value community, advancing change, and food justice. I have also learned to be critically aware of how my own privilege and social identity impact my approach to engaging and organizing in community. More specifically, how important it is to listen to members of a community before making guesses or assumptions about what is needed. I am humbled and inspired by the impactful work these organizations do, especially in this last pandemic year when need has been higher than ever.

Q: After completing your bachelor’s program, you chose to return to UMass for your graduate program and later accepted a position as a lecturer. What keeps pulling you back?

A: After graduating, I traveled for about 10 months. I remember being in my tent in Patagonia on a farm dreaming about the potlucks, community, and friends I missed in western Massachusetts. Now, as an almost-senior lecturer, I still feel a sense of belonging here. It feels like home. It is a wonderful place to study, teach, and practice sustainable agriculture; much of the community is committed to social change—and the landscape is truly beautiful. I am grateful for the friends I had as a student at UMass, and now 10 years later am grateful to have a wonderful community of colleagues in Stockbridge and across campus. It is strange to see buildings pop up in places I used to lay in the grass. It is delightful to experience UMass Dining hall upgrades and eat the consistently delicious campus food. While we still have a lot of work to do as a campus community, it is important to me that UMass strives to be an anti-racist institution and I see this now more than ever.

Three backpackers posing next to a river in Patagonia.

Q: Wait … you lived in a tent in Patagonia for three months?!
A: Traveling has expanded my awareness in ways for which I am forever grateful! From an agricultural perspective, yes, it was so important to apply and challenge the concepts I had learned in the classroom and in the field in a completely different climate. Really, what I learned in my time as a student was what questions to ask, how to listen to local farmers, and how to think of big picture agricultural/ecological systems and assess how to manage water, soil nutrients, and light.