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Profile: Theresa Allen Keeps It Homegrown Down on The Farm

Theresa Allen stands by The Farm sign located on Grey Road in Davidson
Theresa Allen welcomes visitors to The Farm at Davidson, just past Erwin Lodge on Grey Road.

You've heard of "farm to table."

At Davidson, Theresa Allen went from table to farm.

During her first year at the college, she worked in dining services at Vail Commons, where she got to know campus chefs' particularities, administrators' priorities and students' palates, as well as personalities.

She still counts students as the best part of her job, now as manager of The Farm at Davidson.

"I served them their meals every day of the week; I know what they like to eat!" she said, sitting at her own dining table in the home she shares with her partner Jim King, director of grounds at the college, and their two-year-old yellow lab named Sonny.

Allen, in trademark overalls and blonde ponytail, has lots of energy. That's a good thing.

"This is the hardest job I've ever done," she said, looking out the window toward the acreage in cultivation. "I love it."

Her daily duties, as for any farmer, include planting, watering, fertilizing, weeding, harvesting, washing and packing. Allen also is in charge of campus merchandising and sales, coordinating student workers and volunteers, networking with alumni farmers, offering community and alumni tours, planning crops and their rotations, and prioritizing small-business strategies.

An emphasis on entrepreneurship is one of the ways in which Davidson is reimagining the liberal arts. Allen's work at The Farm is a prime example, for her and for the students who work there as interns, student workers, researchers or volunteers.

A New Venture

Davidson bought the 109-acre McIntosh Farm contiguous to campus on Grey Road in 2008, and soon planted the seeds there for farming as a standalone business unit of the college. That was the same year Allen and King moved to Davidson, ready for a less urban lifestyle than Atlanta. In Atlanta, Allen owned and operated Passion Flower Farms nursery for 10 years, growing heirloom vegetables, plants, herbs and flowers, and also performing landscape installation. She also worked as lead horticulturalist at Spelman College and started Peace and Harmony Farm in 2008, selling her products at Decatur Farmer's Market.

"Walked away from both of them with crops in the field. When we decided to move to Davidson, it was time," she said, smiling at the memory. She loves it here. "Yes, it's true that Davidson is a bubble sometimes. And it's also not Atlanta."

In North Carolina, Allen attended the Elma Lomax Incubator Farm in Concord for a season and also sold CSA shares. For the past three years, rotating 1.5 acres and a 90-by-36-foot "high tunnel" in cultivation at The Farm at Davidson to the satisfaction of chefs in Vail Commons, Davis Café and Much Ado Catering-well, that has kept her busy enough without any extracurriculars! Business is booming.

"In the first quarter of this fiscal year, we sold more produce than we did in the entire previous fiscal year," Allen said. "And one of my goals is to provide all the lettuce served in Commons, year round...."

The personal relationships she has formed at The Farm and at the kitchen and dining room tables of Davidson are key, from the innovative support she shares with Director of Dining Services Dee Phillips to the youthful enthusiasm of summer interns down on the farm.

"The students are just the best," Allen said.

The Duke Endowment's support has been critical, she said, for infrastructure and two years' operating budget as a self-sustaining business unit of the college; that means direct competition with outside vendors, with no special perks, privileges or passes.

And approaching the end of her third fiscal year as manager, she is confident of The Farm as a going business concern, beyond the obvious benefits of fresh, healthy food for the campus.

"It's a huge learning experience!"

Learn more in the Davidson Journal at Renewable Resource: The Farm at Davidson College.