Biology graduate returns to ‘grow’ garden learning

October 6, 2015

Kristyn Achilich ’05 brings a lot to Saint Michael’s College.

It was true 15 years ago when she arrived to Lyons Hall as a first-year biology student from Maine in an over-loaded pickup — and true again this August when she returned with an impressively packed resume to fill a new campus job: academic program coordinator for the organic garden and permaculture site.

Achilich describes that first-year arrival: “As we pulled up to campus in my parents’ pickup loaded down with stuff, a future friend of mine and Orientation Leader yelled, ‘You have entirely too much stuff!’ — so I was red-faced and hiding.”

She’s far more self-assured about what she brings in 2015 to her new “dream job.” Achilich says her work and learning experiences since graduating have prepared her ideally — almost uncannily so – to cultivate learning opportunities in the fast-expanding organic gardens on campus.

Achilich will support students, faculty, and community members who use the Organic Garden and Permaculture Site for education and research and be a resource for faculty as they plan lessons in the outdoor classroom. She’ll manage and design the facility to maximize its research, teaching and community-engaged learning potential, while modeling best ecological farming practices for students.

Her previous related work has included the Governor’s Institute of Vermont’s Food, Farms and Your Future Institute as a teaching assistant; Market Garden Assistant at Trillium Hill Farm; research student and assistant in UVM’s Food Systems program; and the curriculum coordinator for the Farm at the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps. Beyond her Saint Michael’s undergraduate biology degree, she has a master’s from the University of Vermont in Food Systems and is a master’s of education candidate from Saint Michael’s.

Achilich traces many of her career achievements and interests back to student days as a researcher with Saint Michael’s biology Professors Mark Lubkowitz and Mac Lippert while she was still an undergraduate. It’s what motivates her to create similar possibilities for today’s students in the outdoor “lab” that she’ll supervise.

“It was a highlight of my undergrad days doing that research starting as a sophomore and then for three full calendar years – just a fabulous experience of experiential education — though that term wasn’t used then,” she says. “I loved the experimental nature or research, working both yourself and collaboratively with other students.”

Right after graduation she worked at Burlington’s Ski Rack, where she discovered a talent and love for guiding people properly on activities and equipment for outdoor experiences. For several summers and still today she teaches mountain biking to middle school girls, which stoked her fires to become an educator, preferably outdoors.

The food connection to her career is simpler still: “I enjoy eating,” says Achilich. “My grandmother, who is my ultimate role-model, is an avid gardener, and I spent a lot of time in the garden with her and just loved it.” She grew up in a rural Maine community across from a dairy farm near Augusta in a construction trades family that did maple sugaring, “so I grew up working outside,” she says. “My parents had 20 acres of woods. So while I love the skills and training from my liberal arts background, I also love being able to get outside and sweat and move things and be dirty and have that balance in my life. It’s kind of what makes me tick.”

She chose Saint Mike’s all those years ago after a Vermont trip with family to check out colleges. “UVM seemed huge to a small-town rural kid, but then we came here and loved how it was quieter and more accessible yet still bustling at times. The programming, the faculty, the mission, the support the college offered, all were factors and I couldn’t wait to return and give that back to the students who are coming now,” she says.

Heather Ellis-Lynch, the college’s sustainability director who hired Achilich, recalls how Achilich reached out as an alumna living locally after hearing about the garden program when it began a few years ago. “She came for a day and volunteered and we stayed in touch” since the two women were pursuing similar graduate programs, Lynch says.

“We hit the ground running this semester with projects at the new site,” saysLynch, who is handing off what she began with student helpers and paid part-time alumna assistant Erika Bodin ’13 over the summer for work early this fall, such as constructing raised beds at the new garden site or seeding, developing and breaking new cover crop, getting a greenhouse and wash station set up and then planting some garlic in the ground as the first true crop of the new site.

The goal in the coming year is to establish “strong roots” curriculum-wise as the new garden site is developed with purpose, keeping education in the forefront of all projects. Achilich and Lynch say. They hope biology faculty will run ever more research projects at the new site, as in past years at the old one, and that student service groups can grow food for area food shelves and other outreaches. ‘”Orchestrating all that makes my head spin a little bit but it’s super-exciting and I’m being careful to leave a lot of space and time to think it through, said Achilich.

“I can hop on a tractor and do it myself but I don’t want to,” she said. “I want to involve the students.”“ She is “absolutely interested” in connecting to the Edmundite history and mission of the new garden site by supplying food for the needy, “but I don’t want producing food to be the driving force of the garden. I want the garden and this permaculture site to be an outdoor classroom where people can go and learn and discover, and the food being grown is just an outcome of that experience, not the driving force. I want there to be some mistakes. If we lose a bed of garlic, that’s fine, but what did we learn from that?” Other goals include arranging for produce from the gardens to be used by the College food service, and expanding the existing farm-stand operation.

Achilich’s office is conveniently located in the Women’s Center near the Ross parking lot. She loves that the Center has a kitchen near her office, which she can use for programming with students in preparing food and studying food and nutrition.

Achilich enjoys mountain and road biking, reading, travel, cross-country skiing, running. She lives in Winooski with her husband with two dogs who “love to eat Kale.” Her husband, Jason, has done licensure and master’s work for special education at Saint Michael’s and is a special educator at Mansfield Academy.

Since students returned in late August through October, she reports some garden highlights have been:

  • Arranging that students can buy farm-stand produce with their KnightCards, and setting up in a new higher-traffic location in the Greenspace between Alliot and Joyce.
  • Connecting with more campus groups that are using garden produce – such as Green Up cooking chili from recent garden-grown produce during Harvest Week, Oct. 19-24.
  • Bringing “Outdoor Volunteer Service” MOVE students down Thursdays and Fridays for service days in the garden; so far, 65 students and staff have come down in the past month, earning “farm-stand credit.”
  • On the curriculum front: bringing down instructors and classes from environmental studies and English as a Second Language already for educational presentations in the garden. Some international students want to pursue plantings of personal cultural interest. Peter Hope in biology will do his forest ecology work in woods around the new permaculture site rather than using the usual Camp Johnson woods, in order to establish baseline data at the new site. Declan McCabe, biology chair, plans similar surveying for animals.
  • Moving on securing permits for a Greenhouse at the new site, prepared plans for building tables for seed-starts there.
  • Constructed 16 raised beds and filled them, planted garlic, tulips and daffodils plus cover crops, did tilling.

Follow us on social.