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Community Ecology Institute: Growing a farm into a living classroom in Howard County

For Baltimore Sun Media Group

Chiara D’Amore wants to transform a small organic farm in Columbia into a living classroom for the nonprofit she founded in 2016 with a mission to reconnect people to the natural world.

The Harper’s Choice environmentalist said she isn’t at all surprised when people say they haven’t heard of the Community Ecology Institute, which is seeking a conditional use modification to operate on a Columbia farm.

But D’Amore is undeterred by the lack of name recognition.

The former environmental program manager is banking that a groundswell of community support — as well as being in the right place at the right time — will soon translate into a new future for the fledgling nonprofit. The organization grew out of a club she formed in 2014 called Columbia Families in Nature.

D’Amore said CEI is working to raise $300,000 to purchase Shaw Farm, a 6.4-acre property in a residential neighborhood near Atholton High School. A second campaign to raise another $300,000 to modify the interior of an existing barn for offices and classrooms will likely come later.

Fundraising must be completed by the May 15 deadline set by farm owner David Shaw to finalize the deal, she said.

A community input meeting will be held April 9 at the Central Branch of the Howard County Library System. Neighbors of the property can learn more about the proposal and give feedback before the modification request is heard by a hearing examiner.

A private gathering for prospective donors is planned for April 4.

Having a facility at 8000 Harriet Tubman Lane would boost the nonprofit’s profile in the community and permit expanded programming, D’Amore said, while saving a 38-year-old family farm from development at the same time.

“There is a fire in me to protect this land,” said D’Amore, who has a master’s degree in environmental science and engineering and a doctorate in sustainability education.

A married mother of two elementary-age kids, she left her consulting career in 2017 to focus on growing the institute.

“We’ve been limited in what we can do and that has motivated us to take this big leap,” she said of the institute.

D’Amore said she would like to see work on cleaning up the property begin this summer if plans are approved, but a precise timeline for barn renovation and other goals hasn’t been decided.

“I’m hoping the community will be really excited to have this space brought back to life,” she said.

If the farm purchase moves forward, a 4,000-square-foot barn on the property that is 75 percent finished would become classroom and office space. There are also plans to showcase the types of gardens a homeowner can have on a quarter-acre or a patio, among many other outdoor projects.

Collaborations with the Howard County Autism Society, Howard EcoWorks and Transition Howard County are already underway and others are in the works, she said.

D’Amore acknowledged there is a lot of overlap among the various green nonprofits in Howard County, such as the Howard County Conservancy and Patapsco Heritage Greenway.

“Each organization has its own niche focus,” she said, “so the more we come together and collaborate, the better.”

Credit for bringing D’Amore and Shaw together goes to Kathy Johnson, director of agriculture business at the Howard County Economic Development Authority.

Johnson sent out an exploratory email last summer stating she’d heard D’Amore was looking to buy a farm for her nonprofit and that she knew of a property that would fit the bill.

“Mr. Shaw had asked for her help in finding someone to commit to keeping the land in agriculture,” recalled D’Amore, who hadn’t yet contacted a real estate agent or begun seriously searching for land when she was contacted by Johnson.

“We all went out to the farm the next day, and I felt compelled to save it from the first time I set foot on the property,” she said.

Shaw Farm is too small to qualify for agricultural preservation, Johnson said, so this arrangement holds real promise for meeting the needs of both parties.

“The farm is one of those little gems that there are fewer and fewer of in eastern Howard County,” Johnson said.

“Chiara is a go-getter who has a real grasp of what she needs to do to purchase the farm and develop it into a teaching center,” she added. “I believe in fate and think this will all work out.”

Shaw Farm was founded by Shaw in 1982 when he was 24. Now 61, he said he plans to retire after the farm is sold.

In 1981, armed with a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from the University of Maryland, College Park, Shaw bought what was then a vacant, overgrown lot and his parents and siblings helped him clear the land, he wrote in an email.

The Shaw family sold organic produce for years at county farmers markets and donated thousands of pounds of vegetables and fruit to people in need, he said. They also sold produce in a community-supported agriculture program and later worked with food banks.

“Having been involved intimately with this land for almost 38 years, it is very important to me to find new stewards for the farm,” he stated.

“Working with Chiara and the other members of the Community Ecology Institute will ensure that my family’s values of clean air, water, soil and food — and putting people ahead of profits — will continue,” he wrote.

Shaw is not D’Amore’s only fan.

Beverly White-Seals, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Howard County, took a February meeting with D’Amore, even though she was unfamiliar with the nonprofit.

By the time the meeting ended, White-Seals had offered to host the April 4 gathering.

“Chiara comes in here cold, and by the time we’re done talking, I’m opening up my home to her. She’s amazing,” she said.

White-Seals praised D’Amore’s mission to educate people on what can be done to stem the tide on such issues as global warming and climate change.

“The role that nature plays in making us healthy really resonates with me,” she said.

When D’Amore organized her first Columbia Families in Nature outing five years ago, 100 people turned out and then kept showing up for other events, she recalled.

That’s when she knew she was on to something.

“There have been dozens and dozens of studies on the importance of getting outside when you’re young, having a role model teaching you about nature, and participating in an organization where you can see impact,” she said.

D’Amore also started Roots and Wings, an experiential learning program for home-schooled elementary-age kids that operates out of a room in an Owen Brown church.

“I’ve been planting seeds for a long time and now they’re starting to grow,” she said.

“The energy and momentum around us are really good right now. Being at the farm will help focus and ground all of our work.”

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