The First-Person Project

Jackie Caserta ’90

Walpole, NH

Innkeeper, The Inn at Valley Farms, Walpole

Major: Biology

I went to a private school, Northfield Mount Herman, my junior and senior years of high school – it offered more opportunities than the local school. When I graduated, I really didn’t have any idea what I wanted to do. And being from Walpole, New Hampshire, I thought, OK, I’ll start at Keene State, I’ll stay there a year, I’ll see what happens. I’d always loved to garden, always loved to be outside in nature. So biology was a natural fit for me. I thought I might be a naturalist, do some sort of outdoor work, but I didn’t really know what.

Two Keene State biology professors made a particular impact on me. Ken Bergman, for sure. I’ll never be able to look at a fruit fly the same way ever again after taking his genetics class! And also David Gregory. I took a mushroom ID class with David and I’m still mushroom hunting and sharing this passion regularly with others. So I had this biology major, but I didn’t really know what the options were for a career. And then one day I was sitting in the lecture hall in the science center, and a fellow student I didn’t know leaned over to me, and he says, Can you believe that they don’t do any recycling here? And I looked over and I said, You’re right! And I watched as every student who came into the hall threw a can or bottle into the trash. You get a couple hundred kids in one class, and that’s a lot of trash.

So I made some inquiries with the administration, and was told, No – recycling is going to cost more than it’s worth, it’s a pain in the neck, blah, blah, blah. That was the last thing I wanted to hear, someone telling me that I can’t do something. So I persevered, and eventually the college gave me some funding to revive ROCKS, the campus recycling program that had been dormant for about ten years. At the end of the school year, the college used to bring in all these 40-yard dumpsters, and students would throw perfectly good stuff they didn’t want in there before going home for the summer. I’ve always had a very strong belief in volunteerism and giving back to the community. Why are all these boxes of macaroni and cheese going into the dumpster when there are people starving? So that’s when we first started collecting students’ unwanted items from the dorms. We’d sort the collected materials, and then bring the clothing, towels, linens, and kitchenware to the Salvation Army, canned goods and other food items to the Keene Community Kitchen, and we’d return all the dining commons bowls and silverware that got carried out. We even collected enough cement cinder blocks that summer to build the foundation of a KSC employee’s garage. I still have a cactus that I pulled out of the dumpster – it’s grown so much it’s about ready to break through the roof. Over time, we bought recycling containers, we bought a truck. When I graduated, we were reducing Keene State’s waste stream by about 42 percent. My experience with ROCKS is what really set me on my path in life.

I worked for ROCKS for a little while after I graduated, then I got a job with the New Hampshire Business and Industry Association’s Waste Cap program, which helped businesses in the state set up recycling programs. That experience led to a position with the New Hampshire Governor’s Recycling Program, working to increase the use of recycled content materials purchased by government agencies, municipalities, and individuals in the state. Next, with funding from US EPA, I was hired as a Recycling Market Development Specialist through a partnership between the New Hampshire Department of Resources and Economic Development and the New Hampshire Office of State Planning. My job was to work with New Hampshire manufacturers to help them increase their use of recyclable materials in their manufacturing processes, which in turn would help increase the demand of recyclables in our state. All of those jobs were based in Concord.

But that work was all grant funded, and grant money was getting more and more difficult to secure all the time. My parents had just purchased a property in Walpole, a 105-acre former dairy farm located near their house, where I grew up. My then-husband and I wanted to start a family, and I wanted to stay home if I could. So in 1999 we opened a B&B that just happened to be on a farm. I had a garden, chickens, a few pigs.

I’d been running the farm and the inn on my own for about five years, and raising two daughters, when my brother, Chris, started to get interested in farming. Michael Pollen’s book *The Omnivore’s Dilemma* really inspired him. Chris went down to Virginia and spent time with Joel Salatin, a farmer who raises livestock in an ethical and environmentally responsible way. He’d been working at my parents’ financial planning business, and he gradually started spending more and more days working on the farm, and now he and his wife, Caitlin, farm full time.

With both the inn and the farm we do as much as we can to be sustainable and we’re as energy efficient as we can be with a 240-year-old house. The farm had really started to take off about the same time as the economy crashed in 2008. As a result, the economic crash didn’t hit us as hard as other area businesses because it meant people were starting to vacation closer to home. The interest in local food was really starting to grow at the same time, and we’re so blessed to be in an area where that’s valued. Right here in our village of 3,500 residents we have an orchard that grows nearly 200 varieties of fruit, two ice cream makers, two cheese makers, a chocolatier, a winery, honey and maple syrup producers, numerous dairy farms, other meat and egg producers, and farmstands. We gradually started marketing the B&B more as a farm stay, a place to stay and learn about where your food comes from. We’ve found that was really a need. People wanted to know, What is free range? Cage free? Grass fed? When I go to the farmers’ market or the supermarket, what should I be asking for? Guests can come out and wander around in the gardens, visit our animals, high tunnels, and barns, help with chores, and collect their own eggs. I incorporate as much as we grow here on the farm as possible into our three course farm-to-table breakfast and guests commonly start food-related conversations over breakfast. This tomato is green, is it not ripe? And I say, No, it’s a green zebra. Wow! I’ve never had a tomato that tastes like this. This is what an heirloom tomato is? And I say, You’re buying tomatoes in the supermarket. You’ve got to go to the farmers’ market. So my innkeeper role has grown to include education.

Our farm now raises 100 percent grass-fed beef, pasture-raised heritage breeds of pork, chickens, turkeys, goats, a wide variety of vegetables, herbs, and small fruits. We can sleep a total of 28 guests, between the inn, the cottages, and the back half of Chris and Caitlin’s farmhouse. Over the last few years we’ve expanded into hosting small destination weddings and family reunions. Sometimes I work 40, 50 days straight without a day off, with maybe four days off in the summertime. But the wintertime is quieter. That’s when we do all the behind-the-scenes stuff, like marketing, updating the website, and maintenance projects.

We have a lot of return guests, and some regulars. It’s really rewarding to have people see and feel and appreciate what we’ve created here. The more you talk to people about food, the more excited they get about it. Sometimes kids come to me and hug me, saying they don’t want to leave. Can we live on your farm? It’s just very sweet. One woman has stayed here with her kids several times; they live in Manhattan. Her highlight is being able to compost. They live on the eighth floor of a 23-story building, so she can’t compost at home. When she’s here, she has a little bucket and she saves her scraps and adds her compost to our pile every day. She can explain the process to her kids, how the compost is used to make enriched soil for the garden, and they can see the garden growing.

I love living in Walpole; it’s just a really great community, and everybody helps one another. We’re all in it for the same things, really. I’m remarried now; my husband, Tim Caspersen, works on the HVAC systems at Keene State. His daughter Taylor just started her first year at Keene State, and his son Zachary is 16. My daughter Julia’s almost 14, and Elaina’s almost 16. Having my parents still down the road is pretty great. They help out a lot.

Working with ROCKS, I was finding markets, writing contracts, signing contracts, and that whole business piece is what really gave me the experience to get the state jobs that I did, and also to run my own business. Through my work at the New Hampshire Department of Resources and Economic Development, I learned a lot about government workings and grant writing. That was huge. On the farm side, we have done some projects with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, and I honestly don’t know if my family would have pursued any of that if I hadn’t had that background. We’ve done a number of projects with financing from the USDA, which has been really beneficial in helping us expand the farm sooner than we would have been able to. I tell young people all the time, it’s not necessarily your degree – it’s what you do and the people that you meet that help you find your path.