March 12, 2024
Max Traunstein and Lilly Israel.

Two recent alumni of our Sustainable Food & Farming program have purchased Kitchen Garden Farm in nearby Sunderland, with help from the Lotta Agricultural Fund administered for the benefit of UMass graduates.

Max Traunstein and Lilly Israel are 2014 graduates of the Sustainable Food & Farming program at Stockbridge School of Agriculture, and both have been working at Kitchen Garden Farm for several years. Current owners Caroline Pam and Tim Wilcox started their family farm as a small-scale market garden in 2006.  Over 18 years, Caroline's ability to seek grants and complete projects enabled them to scale the business to a 70-acre wholesale farm and value-added food processing business, with land in both Sunderland and Whately.  Max and Lilly were an integral part of this expansion, and all four were able to facilitate the sale of the entire business to a new generation of farm entrepreneurs.

Both Max and Lilly credit their mutual love of farming, and their confidence to take on such a big project, to experiences in their college years at Stockbridge, and on the UMass Student Farm.

"Many of the specialized classes we took were relevant to the details required to manage a farm, and the UMass Student Farm helped us start to understand how to balance that list of skill sets and variables required to successfully run an operation," says Max.

Max Traunstein by a field and a large stack of refined wood.

Max credits UMass Farm Manager Amanda Brown, and his one-on-one faculty advisor John Gerber for helping guide and mentor his path of professional growth and discovery at Stockbridge.  "I also had the unique opportunity to run a small market garden project through the New England Small Farms Institute (NESFI), growing fall crops in a field amended with biochar."  After graduating in 2014, Max joined the Kitchen Garden farm crew, eventually rising to the role of Production Manager. 

"We both spent multiple semesters working on the UMass Student Farm," remembers Max. "This solidified our interest in growing and marketing specialty vegetables for wholesale and retail sales, through production farming methods."

Today, as their head grower, Max is responsible for field production daily operations, including everything from greenhouse seedings, crop planning and production, crew management, and equipment maintenance.

Lilly's path to an agricultural life was a bit different.  Born and raised in New York City, with no farming or gardening experience, Lilly remembers walking on campus by Franklin Dining Commons, seeing its beautiful garden and, "on a whim," volunteering.  Today she happily reports "I went from city girl to total plant nerd in just a few years."

"The experience I had volunteering in the Permaculture Food Garden inspired me to enroll in Intro to Botany, which led to declaring a minor in Plant & Soil Sciences."

That minor eventually became a full bachelor's degree in Sustainable Food & Farming, with a dual degree in Natural Resource Economics.  After graduating in 2014, she was hired to manage the UMass Permaculture Initiative for the university.

"I credit John Gerber for convincing me to join the SFF major, and for being a big mentor in college," says Lilly.  "The UMass Permaculture Initiative is what first got me into farming. Then Amanda Brown and the Student Farm taught me about production farming."

Lilly Israel holding vegetables in both hands.

It was the online photos of communal lunches that first attracted Lilly to the prospect of joining Kitchen Garden Farms.  Knowing their reputation as a good workplace, which was backed up by fellow graduate Max Traunstein, Lilly joined them in 2016 to help manage staff, and soon became both Harvest/Washroom Operations Manager, and Sales Manager there.  Today, she is responsible for managing sales of both fresh produce and value-added products, overseeing daily harvest and packing activities, and leading the harvest—all roles she originally learned during her years collectively running the UMass Student Farm.  

"It was a natural step forward for us to take on the farm as business partners when presented with the opportunity last summer," explains Max. 

With the acquisition of Kitchen Garden Farm, and its transition from a small family farm to a large-scale operation overseen by skilled business partners, both Stockbridge alumni are conscious of breaking traditional modes of farm ownership, which are often rooted in multi-generational families.  Ownership of farmland by a family can create challenges if the family's future generations have interests outside of farming.  By having their shared business interests and skillsets as the foundation for their new ownership of the farm, and by declaring LLC business status, Max and Lilly offer a potentially stronger model for agricultural stewardship of the land today and tomorrow.

UMass Student Farm Manager Amanda Brown has confidence in her former students.  "The pair have complementary skills for managing a viable, certified organic farming operation."

A group picture of, from left to right, Lilly Israel, Max Traunstein, Caroline Pam, and Tim Wilcox at the Hot Pepper Festival, wearing branded shirts that are also hanging in the background.

“Max and Lilly bring tremendous skill, deep experience, and excellent judgment to their new roles as owners of the farm,” says current owner Tim Wilcox.  “Creating this farm has been our life’s work,” adds Caroline Pam. "The same could be said equally of Max and Lilly."

Buying a farm is no small purchase though.  To facilitate the purchase of Kitchen Garden Farm, as well as the purchase of some large tractors and specialized equipment like a carousel transplanter, both Stockbridge alumni applied together for a specially subsidized loan from the Lotta Agricultural Fund.  The fund, established by American philanthropist Lotta Crabtree in 1922, provides zero-percent interest loans to UMass Amherst graduates to support agricultural food production enterprise. 

The University's Lotta Agricultural Fund awarded the maximum possible loan amount to Max and Lilly—$100,000, to be paid back over 10 years, with 0% interest.  "The fund is an amazing resource for UMass grads," says Lilly.

Amanda Brown concurs.  "I highly encourage our graduates to apply for funding if they are looking to start or expand their farming business in any capacity.

Additional funding is being provided by the Farm Service Administration, Farm Credit East, and the Carrot Project.  The new business owners have also set up a GoFundMe fundraising account to assist with closing costs.

With her eyes to the horizon, Lilly is thankful for the abundant union of their passions, skills and career goals.  “We are beyond excited for the opportunity to take over this business that we love and have poured years of work into.”