Interview with Betsy Leonard Organic Farm Coordinator of Dilmun Hill

As Organic Farm Coordinator, Betsy Leonard has had and continues to have an invaluable role in the prosperity and growth of the Dilmun Hill Farm. Dedicating 20 hours a week for over 6 years and an unquantifiable amount of care to the farm, Betsy is core to the evolution and success of Dilmun.

Back in October we got the chance to sit down with her and learn about the timeline of Dilmun from its founding in 1997 to today. Betsy’s comprehensive knowledge of Dilmun and the farm’s founding goal to encourage student engagement with organic agriculture shaped and inspired the way we designed the new barn.  

Could you tell us about yourself, how you got involved with Dilmun, and the role you play at Dilmun?

I had been employed by Cornell before I worked with Dilmun, and had done a lot of work with students. I really enjoyed doing that. This job came up, and I decided that I really enjoyed working with students and wanted to more of it. I started six years ago now, almost seven.

The job description looked really good–

I would be overseeing the students here, making sure that what they do is in line with Cornell’s goals. I would keep them safe, but also let them try new things [with agriculture] and let them make mistakes. Learning by doing. “

What’s changed or hasn’t changed at Dilmun throughout the 21 years of its existence?

The students have remained the same–we always get 4 or 5 students every year [to manage the farm], and their level of experience varies. We don’t only take people who have experience because we want people to learn a lot while they’re here. We pick students [to become managers] based on how well they would work together. We don’t really pay that much attention to experience.

Anyone can have a chance to learn, and decide that this [farming] is something they want to do with their life.

What’s changed a lot is the facilities. We have done a lot of different things over the years. We built the high tunnel, we fixed all the irrigation, and we extended the fence around the Market Garden. Glenn and Gene [from CUAES] helped with all of those projects. We got a Towards Sustainability grant to reorganize what we used to call the Tortilla Flats, now called the Market Garden. 

Since I’ve been here, people in the administration [CUAES] have been really supportive. We have Glenn Evans now, he started at the same time I did. He’s helped us a lot, particularly with  funding projects.

We’ve continued to have really good people come and help us like Gene Shopansky from Campus Area Farms. The supervisor before Jim Dodge was very supportive too. 

[In terms of agricultural practices] we’ve always been shooting for raised, more permanent beds. We’ve been trying to do less tillage, but sometimes it doesn’t work out because Dilmun Hill is organic and don’t use any herbicides. Eventually, we’re going to have to turn the soil over, and that’s true of a lot of organic systems.

The crops have remained about the same, except a few extra that certain managers are interested in.

Could you talk about what equipment and  tools that we have and use throughout the season? What new equipment could be helpful?

I think students want to turn beds themselves in the spring, so that they don’t have to wait for somebody else to do it. That’s why Melissa Madden [the previous coordinator] got the BCS/Rototiller for Dilmun. Then we got the rotary plow to make beds. We’ve gotten a couple push seeders, which are fairly new. We’ve also built the high tunnel, which is a really good season extension tool. That’s been one of our major changes. 

[For weed management] we mostly rely on hand tools and volunteers to help us with weeding. 

I think that we could use the BCS more by getting a power harrow attachment. It mixes the soil on the top 3 or 4 inches of the ground. I’m going to ask for one of those during the equipment request period. The power harrow would make a really nice seed bed without actually turning the soil all the way over. 

We would benefit from having a better washing station, and that’s going to be coming on Tuesday. I ordered a three-sink washing station, and we’ll try to put that in the new barn. They’re pretty standard sizes, and I think they should fit in wherever we want to put them .

I think we should look into getting a mouse-proof drying area [for crops like garlic].  A large working cooler would also be great. We need to work on storage. We don’t have a great place to put our potatoes, our garlic, or our squash. Anything that needs cool or dry requires a pest-free area. 

How does Dilmun work with classes & educational events? Why do you think so many classes come here?

We’re a working farm, a student farm. We’re close by. We have challenging soils.We have lots of insects. Entomology classes come here because we don’t spray. We have lots of beneficial insects as well. We’re an agricultural school, so everything that students learn about in class, they can see in action and practice here.

Although managers, the steering members, and myself are willing to give tours to the classes that come to Dilmun, we have classes and other work to do. Maybe in the future, if we have a full-time manager it [tour guiding] could be a role they can play. However, sometimes [classes] really want a student to give the tour because it’s more interesting to hear about the students’ experience with the farm.

We would rather that everyone be able to come here. That’s our policy, that everyone is welcome here.

How do you foresee agricultural practices at Dilmun changing? What are other small farmers doing that are new?

I see Dilmun, if we move up to the top of the hill [when we build the new barn], use the tractor more. There was some interest in having a community garden section of Dilmun. I find that interesting because that would engage the student community more. That would be fun. We could have speakers and workshops focused on what’s happening in the community garden. I hope that the high tunnel soil will be in great condition. 

We see a lot of small farmers have the same permanent beds every year. Cover crops are really important, for both small and large farmers. Recently, farmers have become more interested in soil health. In the 60s, people did a lot of cover crops, but that might been more because of federal programs. Right now, more dairies are putting in cover crops.

How does the current barn accommodate the current functions of Dilmun? What are the shortcomings?

I really think we need a space where people can get out of the sun/rain, when classes are here or managers are working. I think having an overhang would be really good in the new structure for people to gather. If we had a shelter, or even an overhang on concrete, with benches and picnic tables,  that would be nice. We could also have a bigger tool room, and a place for dry storage for garlic  and squash that is rodent-proof. We could also use a better washing station that complies with the GAP [Good Agricultural Practices] standards,  and somewhere to put our equipment and tractor. We would  also  benefit from an office: a place to keep our records and books so that they’re more accessible for people on the farm. Right now a lot of books are in my office, and people don’t even know they’re there.

How could a new barn accommodate the shifts in agricultural practices, new equipment, as well as you/your role with Dilmun?

I’d like to be on the farm if we had an office and the Internet. I could do work such as order things for the student managers here, and be able to engage with them more frequently.

I think it would be helpful to have the barn up on the hill as we try to put the flat land into production and use the tractor. We could have places for people to practice driving the tractor, and cultivating with the implements that we have. I think that the barn up on the hill would be a good meeting place for us. We could have more groups come because a lot of people ask if we have a place for them to sit and talk before their lab [for classes];  they could come here and do everything.


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