by Lou Mancinelli
Every weekend, growing up on in a farmhouse in Chester County, Laura Morris Siena used to go around with her father, conservation pioneer and legislator Samuel Morris, and knock on people’s doors.
“I don’t think I even ever thought of it as a choice,” said Siena, 58, a long-time Mt. Airy resident, during a recent interview, about working with, in and for the community where she lived. “It was just something you did with your life.”
Siena has made a career serving the community. For five years she was executive director of West Mt. Airy Neighbors (WMAN) and spent 15 years on its board. Before that, she worked for 20 years in nonprofit fundraising and other executive roles. “It’s a way of living,” she said. “To be involved in the community.”
That farmhouse where she grew up is now Lundale Farm, 500-plus acres of protected open space dedicated to farming biodynamically and organically. It was her mother’s will, literally. From 2010-2014, Siena served as president of the farm.
In 1967 her parents, Samuel and Eleanor Morris, created the French and Pickering Creeks Conservation Trust that preserves and protects endangered land and natural resources in northern Chester County.
As a state legislator, her father created many bills that laid the framework for protecting and conserving open space not only in Pennsylvania but across the nation. He helped make it possible to purchase development rights without taking ownership of the property as a way to preserve the land.
Laura’s mother served as the organization’s president for almost 30 years. When she died in 2011 at the age of 92, she bequeathed the 420-acre farm where the family lived and raised its children and directed it to be run “biodynamically and organically.”
In 2010 Lundale Farm was incorporated as a non-profit organization dedicated to sustainable agriculture.
“How do we take this land and really make it a resource for sustainable agriculture, not just in this region?” Siena said, about the family’s task. “We were given this land with really almost no direction.”
Siena and her sister Eleanor Morris Illoway, two of eight kids, took charge of the family vision to bring together two ideas, their parents’ devotion to open space conversation and preservation of agricultural land.
Today, Lundale Farm has about 325 acres that can be farmed. In all, including a neighboring farm that will soon be officially considered part of Lundale, purchased by Siena’s sister and brother-in-law, it spans about 500 acres. The vision is to lease the land to five or six different farmers.
Now Eric Franks and his wife Jasmine Richardson and their children live in the stone farmhouse built in 1796 where Siena grew up. They run True Leaf Gardens, a farm that grows microgreens in a greenhouse and sells to restaurants in Phoenixville, the Main Line and Philadelphia — to Starr Restaurants and the Garces Group.
This November Moriah Blienky, in her mid-20s and finishing up her role as assistant manager at Pennypack Farms in Horsham, is bringing horse-powered organic farming to Lundale. She will run a CSA, a community supported agricultural program, growing and selling produce in the region.
“Now we’re really talking about many enterprises on the same land,” Siena said. The organization is slated to begin a strategic planning process. Among the other challenges, is funding. About two-thirds of the board members are family. She said the group is transitioning away from family control.
Right now, Laura serves as secretary of the board (her sister Eleanor is president) and is on the property committee, which meets with potential candidates who want to farm the land. Candidates present a business plan. They must show they are well prepared, dedicated.
Pennsylvania leads the nation in the number of farms and acres permanently preserved for agricultural production. More than 4,500 farms have been approved for easement purchasing totaling more than 500,00 acres.
Lundale exists to be a place where young or beginning farmers can start businesses without having to face the traditional cost of acquiring the land. That, according to Marilyn Anthony, executive director at Lundale, is often cited as the biggest challenge to entering farming. Like any new business, the farmers shouldn’t expect to be profitable the first year.
“We’re really looking for people who have asked themselves the hard questions about that,” Anthony said.
“We believe that growing is better than mowing. It can attract different insects and new species, and can help improve the health of the soil.”
Despite being raised in an idyllic country setting, Siena has always loved the city. After graduating from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1979, where she studied religion, she lived in the East Village in New York City, where she met her husband.
They moved to Mt. Airy in 1986, and working for racial integration became a major part of her life in the ‘90s, when she was executive director and board chair of the Fund For an OPEN Society.
Today, she is co-chair of the strategic planning committee for Lundale and a board member and secretary at Weavers Way, as well as co-chair of its leadership committee.
The mother of two and very good at-home chef will also be a contestant in the fourth annual Cookin’ with Who? community fundraiser, open to the public, on Thursday, Nov. 6, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., at The Brossman Center at LTSP, 7301 Germantown Ave. Nine “Community Chefs” will offer favorite recipes in a competition for awards. Attendees sample the dishes, cast votes for their favorite dishes and chefs, and enjoy a raffle and silent auction.