New Haven Land Trust volunteers pose for a photo in a greenhouse pre-pandemic. Courtesy of Brent Peterkin

As Gather New Haven enters its second year, the New Haven environmental nonprofit organization has focused on creating partnerships between its programs and expanding its offerings amidst the pandemic. 

In January of last year, after several years of collaboration, the New Haven Land Trust and New Haven Farms merged together to create Gather New Haven. Before the merger, the New Haven Land Trust worked to preserve undeveloped public land in New Haven, controlling land grants received from the city and private donations for conservation and recreational purposes. New Haven Farms operated community gardens and a wellness and gardening program. Conversations surrounding a merger first emerged in 2019, culminating in an announcement on Jan. 1, 2020. The merger has allowed for an expanded staff and streamlined the budget process. 

“There was a clear observation in regards to the opportunity to be stronger and to have a more meaningful impact on New Haven,” said Brent Peterkin, the executive director of Gather New Haven, regarding the merger. “The goal is to build capacity for the organization and also to restructure the organization so there is increased alignment.” 

For many years prior, the New Haven Land Trust and New Haven Farms maintained a close partnership, due in part to their shared goal of promoting environmentalism in New Haven. In 2018, two years before the merger, the organizations moved into a shared office space near the corner of Jefferson Street and Grand Avenue, which is now the headquarters of Gather. 

Gather New Haven Community Health Ambassador Coordinator Ruth Torres, who originally worked for New Haven Farms, told the News that the merger felt simply like a logical continuation of the existing relationship between the two groups. 

“We were already working together, we knew most of the people there, we knew most of the staff,” Torres said. “I used to always [work with them], especially when it was summer and we were up at the community gardens.” 

Torres became affiliated with New Haven Farms in 2012 after her grandson participated in their Farm-Based Wellness Program, a nutrition workshop for community members at risk for, or diagnosed with, diet-related chronic diseases. She worked with the organization as a community health ambassador, mentoring FBWP participants. In 2018, she was promoted to coordinate the program. 

The FBWP, which was a crucial pillar of New Haven Farms’ community education efforts, has continued under Gather. In 2020, the program was shortened and offered virtually because of the pandemic. 

“The participants always get a share of fresh vegetables grown in the garden,” Torres said. “So this year what we did was find people who were available to make deliveries, no-contact.”

Last year, while adjusting traditional New Haven Farms and New Haven Land Trust programming to fit pandemic restrictions, Gather also hired a number of new staff members. Executive Director Brent Peterkin and Nature Preserves Coordinator Nikki Saccoccia, among others, were hired at the beginning of 2020. 

However, like Torres, many former New Haven Farms and New Haven Land Trust staff continued their work as a part of Gather. 

Esther Rose-Wilen, the garden education coordinator for Gather, began working for New Haven Land Trust in 2017. She managed the ‘Growing Entrepreneurs’ green business development program for high school students, as well as the ‘Incubator Garden’ program, which gave garden plots to graduates of New Haven Farms’ FBWP. Gather continues to run both programs. 

“[The Incubator Garden program] was our first major partnership with New Haven Farms,” Rose-Wilen said. “And then we started to collaborate on the Growing Entrepreneurs program in 2019.”

At that point, Rose-Wilen also took on grant writing responsibilities at New Haven Land Trust because of the organization’s limited staff. 

After the merger, Gather was able to hire a full-time development director to manage grants, relieving Rose-Wilen and other program managers of that duty. 

“That was one of the goals of the merger,” she said. “For program staff not to be doing a million other different things day to day, but really to be able to focus on their program.”

Budget concerns have also been simplified according to Rose-Wilen because in the past the two organizations had to do the extra accounting work of dividing their expenses on joint projects. 

Peterkin said the current focus of Gather is moving the organization in a new direction rather than starting new initiatives. They hope to create new links between the organization’s various programs in order to increase their relevance to the public. 

“The way we view ourselves is as an organization in New Haven that examines the social, economic, environmental and public health needs and aspirations of our community,” Peterkin said. “We look towards the natural world for resources or remedies to address concerns within those context areas.”

Peterkin added that Gather hopes to restructure some of its programs so that they “speak to the family as a whole.” One way the organization hopes to do this is by expanding how its Farm-Based Wellness Program uses the organization’s nature preserves. While anyone is able to take advantage of the preserves, specific programming allows for FBWP participants and their families to partake in wellness walks at these locations.

The nature preserves, inherited from the New Haven Land Trust, consist of six nature preserves spread throughout New Haven and encompassing over 80 acres of land. These include the “big three” preserves: Long Wharf, Pond Lily and Quinnipiac Meadows. Some of the preserves are recreational spaces equipped with walking trails while others are maintained solely for environmental conservation. 

Saccoccia said she noticed an increase in the usage of the preserves with trails due to the pandemic. Peterkin also noticed that due to the shelter-in-place orders and restaurant shutdowns, there was an increased interest in urban agricultural initiatives. 

“We did notice that there was more attention and interest in growing their own foods, either at the community gardens or in their own backyards,” Peterkin said. “There is an interest, from conversations that I’ve had, in people wanting to get out to the nature preserves.” 

Gather also hopes to address, through policy and practice, overarching issues such as racial justice, environmental degradation and climate change. The organization, Peterkin added, aims to bring the community together and have its program participants become advocates of their own for the natural world. 

“It’s not just about cultivating produce at the ground,” Peterkin said. “It’s about cultivating reverence for the natural world and bringing people together.”

New Haven Land Trust was founded in 1982, while New Haven Farms was founded in 2012.

Sylvan Lebrun | sylvan.lebrun@yale.edu

Sai Rayala | sai.rayala@yale.edu