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Inspired by Neighbors, Kellers Protect Historic Wendell Farm

Farmers Dan and Nina Keller have permanently protected 48 acres of their farm in the Mormon Hollow section of Wendell.  Protecting the land is the newest chapter in the history of a farm that had been all but abandoned in 1969 when Dan Keller and several friends—recent graduates from Pioneer Valley colleges—bought the land together and moved there to farm as part of the back to the land movement. 

Dan was the only member of the group with any experience in commercial agriculture.  He dates his interest in farming to years spent working on a farm in Laconia New Hampshire during high school.  “I had spent some time growing fruits and vegetables and raising cows,” he explains.  “We also had one woman who was already an accomplished gardener and one guy who was really an excellent mechanic, but what it comes down to isn’t so much farming experience as whether you’re willing to do all the work.  If your heart is in it, it doesn’t take much training to set out and weed the field.”

Then known simply as the Wendell Farm, the group was informally affiliated with Packers Corner Farm in Guilford Vermont and the Montague Farm in Montague, where Nina lived before the two met.   “We were a bunch of recent graduates who essentially didn’t want to join the rat race,” adds Dan.  “We were very disillusioned by the Vietnam war and wanted to put some distance between ourselves and that whole world.”  The Wendell Farm helped lead the resurgence of organic farming in the 1970s, selling their vegetables through The Organic Truck, a mobile farmers market that travelled to nearby towns. 

That commitment to ecology is also seen in Keller’s award winning 1975 film Lovejoy’s Nuclear War, which tells the story of Sam Lovejoy, of the Montague Farm, who toppled a weather tower at the proposed site of a nuclear reactor on the Montague Plains and turned himself in to the police in 1974 as an act of civil disobedience. “I had filmed local sports in high school, and I was really struck by how the mainstream media completely ignored the trial, so I began filming,” Dan recalls. The trial helped spark a national resistance to nuclear power and the film, Keller’s first, helped spread the word and let to the founding of Green Mountain Post Films.  

Many of the original founders of the three farms ultimately left, but Nina and Dan continued to farm the land—their work detailed in hundreds of photographs in the Special Collections and University Archives at UMass, which capture the evolution of organic farming in the Valley since the 1960s.  “There are a lot more young farmers now,” says Dan.  “Part of that is the demand for organic produce.  With organics the prices are a bit higher so it’s almost possible to make a decent living farming in New England.  It’s really great to see local farms like Red Fire Farm taking off and turning into real businesses that can support workers.”

After almost 50 years on the land, the Kellers have joined together with their Wendell and Montague neighbors, including farmers at Sugarbush Farm, Diemand Farm, Stoney Hollow Farm, and Hunting Farm, to permanently protect their land with help from Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, part of a multi-year initiative to protect 700 acres, called the Mormon Hollow Working Lands Corridor Project.  “We’re honored to help these families protect the land,” says Jay Rasku, Community Conservation Director at Mount Grace. “It was great to see hundreds of people come out to Diemand Farm’s Party in the Hollow in support of these working farms and forests last month.  It gives you a real sense of how much the community really values the land and the families and neighbors who live on it and support it.”

“We were really inspired by our neighbors and Mount Grace and this whole idea of working together to protect all the farms at once,” says Nina.   “We aren’t doing this just to protect our own little corner of land.  We’re doing this to protect a piece of the planet, and to make it possible for people to keep growing food for the community.”

In 2016, Mount Grace, the towns of Montague and Wendell and the Department of Fish & Game, were awarded a Massachusetts Landscape Partnership Grant to help protect the land.  The Mormon Hollow project was also supported by the 1772 Foundation and the Community Foundation of North Central Massachusetts.