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Army veteran is growing opportunity in York, PA

Meet Alyson Earl

Earl grew up on an upstate NY non-working dairy farm, where her family kept ‘pet’ horses and goats. During her high school years, the trend in agriculture was toward consolidation and “agribusiness”, and away from traditional family farms. Discouraged by what she was seeing, Earl enrolled at Cornell on an Army ROTC scholarship to study ag economics, but changed majors to industrial/labor relations in her quest to understand the dynamics of how people get along in groups on a small scale.

Upon graduation and commissioning into Army Reserves the young officer served on various Air Force bases in New England, supporting units deploying to the first Gulf War. Following her service, she worked in a variety of industries, non-profits, schools, and finally with an ecological restoration company. There Earl learned about native plants and landscape architecture, and wrote construction proposals.

“I bounced around because I wanted to do meaningful work. For a while I designed small business websites, but found I didn’t like working just for income—I needed to give back.” So, when her younger daughter graduated high school she decided the time was right to focus on work that not only fed her family, but fed her soul.

Horn Farm Center

Alyson joined Horn Farm Center, a York County, PA, non-profit organization established in 2004 whose original mission was to showcase the agricultural history of York County. In 2009, the Horn Farm shifted focus to growing new farmers at their incubator farm. Last year the Horn Farm shifted focus again, “Now our overarching purpose is to create a different way of farming.”

In 2018 the Center’s Board of Directors adopted new mission and vision statements, and a new strategic plan emphasizing developing a regenerative farmscape. Earl says the original visionaries realized that, “They could not go back and prevent the pollution of the water and soil at the Farm, but could move forward in an intentional way to restore the wild and semi-wild places on the farm.”

In December, Horn Farm Center received a DCNR grant for their “Regenerative Farmscape East” project. Aligned with their strategic plan, funding will be used to implement streamside plantings on additional acreage on the farm. They’ve already compiled lessons learned from planting 6 acres in Regenerative Farmscape West, and can now apply that knowledge in other locations. The funding has a four year timeline. Anticipating the need to train people to manage these agroforestry systems, the Horn Farm has both a Regenerative Farming Internship and a Woodland Steward Training program where participants learn the requisite skills needed to work cooperatively with the land and to support themselves financially. Earl would like to see fellow veterans in these positions.

Horn Farm Center received $191,600 in grant funding to demonstrate the importance of planting along stream corridors on 20 acres of multi-functional riparian forest buffers along waterways in the Lower Susquehanna River watershed. They will plant a wide array of harvested products--from nuts and medicinal herbs to florals and biomass. They are partnering with the York County Conservation District to collect water quality data on the effectiveness of the buffers. With careful planning and management, Alyson plans to leverage the funds to go beyond their original predicted outcomes, impacting 100 acres by including neighboring land in the buffer project. In addition to the stream plantings, the farm is taking it upon itself to address a major source of water pollution: eroding stream banks. Current models minimize or ignore this, so Earl and her colleagues and Board have engaged in a process of educating the public about this erosion and how to mitigate and prevent it.

Advice for grantseekers

Earl states that the process for this grant was ‘fairly easy’. “I’m military. I can follow directions and check the boxes.” Previously, Horn Farm Center obtained a USDA Rural Business Development Grant--that application process was also straightforward, according to Earl. “What makes it easy for me? Having a big picture goal and working backwards to the details. Also, budgets are my friend.’

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