Most people in the Valley know Knoll Farm as a place to pick berries, to hold an Easter sunrise service or go to a concert or lamb kebab dinner. Fewer people know about the larger mission of the farm and its retreat center. Knoll Farm's mission builds on a 200-year history of growing food and providing refuge. The current owners, coming into their 20th year, see the current societal crisis -- the pandemic and its exposure of systemic racism -- as a lens that has brought everything they do into focus.
Knoll Farm owners Peter Forbes and Helen Whybrow decided to respond to this time of crisis by reaching out to Vermont groups working on social and racial justice issues, food security and the arts. They said they felt moved to figure out a way to offer their retreat center for free to groups that were doing particularly urgent, stressful work and would benefit greatly from being together in person. Groups that took up Knoll Farm's offer to be cared for, to have space to renew themselves and their strategies this summer are: Black Lives Matter, Out in The Open, Presente Maine, In Tandem Arts, VT Community Bail Fund, VT Food Bank, Two Roads Social Services and BIPOC Caucus for Peace and Justice.
The Vermont Black Lives Matter chapter wrote, "We were exhausted and needed to regroup. This was our first chance to see each other, to talk face to face, to refill our wells. Knoll Farm gave us an incredible refuge."
Through this pivot, Forbes and Whybrow feel more connected to their mission and their Vermont community than ever before. But getting there wasn't easy. In April and May, as they watched 100 percent of their retreat bookings cancel and realized they couldn't safely run their own programs and events during the pandemic, they saw closing as the only option. But then George Floyd was killed and the protests started.
A PPP grant helped the farm start paying staff to open the facilities and get things off the ground. Then a grant from the Vermont Community Foundation provided seed money to start offering free retreats. From there, funds raised from individual donors from The Valley and beyond have kept the free retreats going.
This fundraising campaign culminates on August 22 with a benefit concert at the farm with singer-songwriter Peter Mulvey. Mulvey will play inside the events barn to a very small audience and the music will be broadcast outside so that more people can listen and spread out safely across the hill's natural amphitheater. The farm is close to its goal of raising $125,000 by the concert. One hundred percent of the money raised will go to provide refuge for groups and individual citizen leaders doing justice work in Vermont and around the country. The farm provides meals, indoor and outdoor meeting space, and individual yurts for lodging.
Individuals are supported through the farm's Better Selves Fellowships, now in its fifth year. Better Selves Fellows are working 24/7 on immigration issues, police reform and land justice efforts. Many are essential workers, 68% are people of color and 85% are executive directors shouldering everything in their grassroots organizations. Although they had to cancel the fellowship weeks this year, given that those leaders come from around the country, Forbes and Whybrow will welcome all 2020 fellows to the farm in 2021 and now have funds to expand the program to new fellows as well. In addition, they gave out all the money they raised to hold the 2020 fellowships in the form of mini-grants. Alumni used these grants to pay rent, get transportation to work or help their communities.
Knoll Farm is tremendously grateful to the Mad River Valley. "It's natural beauty, civility, generosity and spirit make all this possible. Vermont may feel to many to be too removed from the struggles of this country to be relevant, but this crisis has shown how the state has a role to play as a model, a haven and a place to seed and root new ways of being a just society," Whybrow said.