Laura Andrews and her partner, Cary Gaunt, were taking their daily walk in West Keene two years ago when they saw two red foxes at the edge of Hurricane Road.
They decided to follow the wild animals up a driveway, at the end of which they discovered a beautiful open expanse of land and a run-down-looking cabin with no other life in sight.
With the name Hansel on the mailbox as their only piece of information, they were able to determine that Filtrine Manufacturing Co. owned the property.
Andrews happened to know Peter Hansel, then the company’s president, because he had served on the board of trustees at Antioch University New England, where she works as director of institutional advancement. (Hansel retired from Filtrine earlier this year.)
Andrews and Gaunt have those two foxes to thank for leading them into a partnership that could have far and long-reaching benefits for the region.
That’s because the land, part of a 14.6-acre farm, will serve as a model of sustainability and climate responsibility.
The property has a long history, most notably when it was the location of Ellis Farm — a pick-your-own-berries spot long-time residents remember. A 1770s farmhouse that sat on the land across the road from the cabin was razed, but a barn still stands and houses Mill Hollow Works, a heritage craft school. The 13.4 acres adjacent to the cabin is managed by the Elm Research Institute, which grows about 4,000 Liberty elm trees there.
The couple’s shared core values of sustainability — Gaunt is Keene State College’s campus sustainability director — led them to reach out to Hansel, who happened to be looking for ideas for the property’s future use.
“He pitched this idea of a collaborative with us working in concert with Filtrine,” Andrews said. “He painted a vision of how the land could be restored and regenerated using sustainable methods.”
Part of that vision involved renovating the cabin using sustainable materials. That project, on which they worked closely with Hansel, was completed, and Andrews and Gaunt moved into their solar-powered home in September of 2019.
Along with Hansel, they came up with a plan to develop a farm on the land, which Filtrine still owns, with space to support wildlife and pollinators.
The land around the cabin had recently been logged, and the soil, after testing, was found to have almost no organic matter.
Andrews said she and Gaunt are working to restore the 1-acre area that surrounds their house.
“We’re basically starting from scratch,” said Andrews, because of the poor soil quality.
The blueprints include a pollinator garden in the patch encompassed by the circular driveway as well as behind the house and immediately in front of its deck. Fruit trees and vegetable gardens will also be planted.
Andrews said the project will improve the soil and bring in native plants “that will be both beautiful and useful for butterflies, bees, birds and other species.” It will also serve as roaming space for the four goats she and Gaunt acquired.
The project received a $5,500 grant this year from the Cheshire County Conservation District, which also awarded three other small habitat-improvement projects in the region.
Andrews and Gaunt received the expertise and advice of the conservation district’s manager, Amanda Littleton, along with Michael Nerrie, a local expert in environmental landscaping, on how to stage and prepare the land to fulfill their vision next spring.
The pair are also working to identify what is growing on the land naturally so they can factor it into their list of plants they need to purchase.
They aim to create something that is accessible on a neighborhood scale.
“We want people to think they could do this,” Andrews said. “We also want to spread knowledge that having open space attracts wild beings. We want it to be an oasis in the middle of development.”
Part of the group’s long-term goal for the project is providing community education with hopes the farm can serve as a model of sustainability and renewable energy. Keene State College student interns were already involved in a project with Village Roots Farm and Education of East Alstead to create a permaculture — a sustainable and productive ecosystem — on the land by burying debris left behind from logging operations.
“Whatever we do in terms of education and farming, we don’t want to compete with surrounding farms, we want to complement them,” said Andrews, adding that the group has been talking with Daniel Prial and his wife, Anne, a farming couple who live nearby, about the possibility of future stewardship.
Until next spring, project collaborators will be putting together more pieces of their vision for how the land will be used and determining what additional funding may be needed to get there.
“We’re so excited about what can happen here,” Gaunt said.
When they first met with Hansel, he showed them some earlier photos of the property.
“It was Ellis Farm — I feel like we’re building on that legacy,” Andrews said. “The ability to have this much open land right in Keene city limits, with so many environmentally minded people in the area — it feels right.”