How do you catch the eye of the First Lady?
Through a growing passion for sustainable gardening!
At least that was the case for Dan Allen ’91, a chemistry major turned high school chemistry teacher with a unique hobby: he runs an organic farm and a suburban community garden in New Jersey.
We recently caught up with Allen to find out more about his farm and garden. We also got the scoop on his feature in First Lady Michelle Obama’s new book, "American Grown."
Tell us about your organic farm!
I raise about 80 laying hens and 12 sheep, and have a one-acre vegetable garden for my extended family to eat and sell from at our farm stand. We raise thousands of tomato and pepper seedlings and sell them at the stand, and I've planted over 250 fruit and nut trees over the past decade. I cut and split firewood from our wood lot for heating needs. I also help out with other family members’ farms raising pigs and cows, and growing hay.
What makes it organic?
We do not use herbicides, pesticides, or industrially manufactured fertilizer – we fertilize with composted animal manure and garden wastes. We control weeds by weeding and mowing, and control pests by growing a large diversity of crops, rotating them, and using a bunch of other clever tricks to outsmart the bugs versus exterminate them.
Why did you decide to start a suburban community garden?
I thought it'd be a great idea for my local community to become more resilient in the face of any economic, energetic, or environmental disruptions that might pop up in the future. Two ways I thought we could become more resilient would be to get to know each other more deeply in some sort of shared, meaningful endeavor, and, to learn how to grow our own food in a way that doesn't require fossil fuel inputs and doesn't harm the planet. I thought a community garden could fulfill both of these well.
How many members of your community participate?
There are about 300 people on our weekly email list, and between 30 and 50 people come out to the garden every Saturday morning when we officially meet. The garden is in a public park, so there are about a dozen more who are busy on Saturdays and come during the week instead. The folks that come out on Saturday’s are typically one-third regulars, one-third every-once-in-a-whilers, and one-third newbies.
Do any of the students you teach help with the garden?
Yep! Three or four of my students get involved every year, alone or with their parents. While it's a good community service project for their college resume, they also want to learn how to grow food and get a connection to their food supply. Current Gettysburg College student Ryan Becker ’13 was one of those students – he still comes back to visit during breaks! There are also a lot of students from the elementary and middle schools that come with their parents, and they are a huge help – it’s really neat to watch them “get it.” I also give a garden tour to students taking environmental courses at the local community college, and a few of those students end up getting involved, too.
What does it take to run a community garden?
Here are my top three tips:
1. You absolutely need a few people who know how to do things the right way – and can teach people how to do it in the process. I've been gardening on a somewhat large scale for a decade, and the other co-organizer, a local middle school teacher, has been gardening similarly for decades. We know how to prepare and care for the soil, what to plant, how to plant it, when to harvest it, what to do with it after the harvest, etc. Over time, community garden veterans can learn a lot about the processes and procedures and in turn can teach the newbies. A successful harvest every year is a key requirement for keeping the project going.
2. It needs to be fun. Gardening's not the easiest thing in the world: it can be hot, buggy, dirty, physically demanding, and a lot more, so people need to have a reason to stay involved. Our garden has few rules, and all harvest and working is on the honor system. Our motto is: show up, grab a tool, start a conversation, and go home with some food. We have no membership list, no sign-in sheets, no mandatory fees, no timed work requirements, and no hard rules for how much food each person can take home. On paper, it seems like it might be a bit to lax, but the system has worked well for us – this is our fourth year in operation, and it's been getting better each year.
3. And it takes buy-in from the community and local government. With our township’s help, we were able to preserve the land we use as township-owned open space, install deer/groundhog fence, connect an irrigation source from an existing well, and arrange for compost to be delivered. Aside from being responsible tenants, we don't have to jump through any logistical hoops with the town. And donations of money, seeds, and tools from members of the community really help us, too.
You’re featured in First Lady Michelle Obama’s new book, "American Grown." How did the White House find out about your community garden?
They found an article I wrote about the community garden called "Conservation and the Community Garden: One Suburban Model that Works." Michelle Obama's assistant, Lyric Winick (co-author of Laura Bush's autobiography), contacted me and I did an extended interview with Lyric. She also visited the garden, and I submitted a bunch of garden pictures, too. The two-page interview in her book is a combination of my interview with Lyric and my Energy Bulletin essay.
How long did the whole book process take?
It was about a year from the initial interview to when the book hit the shelves this May. Lyric told me the process was a little bit like a reality television show – they had lots of gardens to consider for inclusion, and they had to make cuts little by little. Luckily we made the final cut - Michelle really liked the story of our garden!
Did you get to meet the Obamas?
No, but I received a complimentary copy of the book with Michelle's autograph.
We want to learn more about your community garden! Where do we go?
Visit our community garden online! Be sure to check out and even sign up for the weekly newsletter that goes out every Thursday - it has a lot of interesting information inside.
Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.
Contact: Tracey Dukert, assistant director of news content, 717.337.6521