June 2014 - Mary Praus: Quiet Revolution
Mary Praus, Greening Greenfield's Green Hero for June, embodies Gandhi’s principle that you must “be the change you wish to see in the world.” Her respect for the environment and belief that human beings can live in harmony within it shapes her personal life, professional work, and volunteer activities.
Praus has taken “think globally and act locally” to high level on her 0.2 acre property within Greenfield. Her sunny front yard contains a low hoop house that winters over greens, like spinach, cilantro, and lettuces, so that she and her partner Glen Ayers can enjoy fresh, pesticide-free, delicious salads by early April. Her fertile front yard, reclaimed from privet bushes and lawn, also yields tomatoes, basil, kohlrabi, poblanos, lima beans and more. Many fruit trees share the space: plum, peach, pear, and cherry providing the perfect environment for conversations with neighbors and passersby: some thinking of growing food in their own front yards, others asking why the vegetable garden is in the front. A positive effect of these interactions is the opportunity to talk to people about the benefits of raising food, not lawns.
Praus’ backyard is shady and very cool, in many ways. Old dumps have been uncovered throughout the backyard, but Praus is in the process of restoring the land with native plants, including spice bush, ferns, pagoda dogwood, and muscle wood, all serving as an understory for existing black cherry, yellow birch, and white ash trees. Her two dogs enjoy the fenced space for exploring and playing. She and Ayers have even added a pond for wildlife, which has become habitat for American toads and a haven for dragonflies and birds. This small ecosystem has created a bounty for humans, birds, insects, and frogs in central Greenfield!
Praus has had a longtime interest in how gardens and the built environment relate to the natural environment and for 12 years owned Sweet Earth, a landscape design firm. In 2010, to pursue her interests further, she attended the Conway School, an intensive graduate program in ecologically and socially sustainable land planning and design. Time at the Conway School taught Praus how to assess natural systems, and how to optimize small spaces using a multiple utility approach.
Praus feels fortunate that she landed a job as a land use planner at the Franklin Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG) in Greenfield where she applies her interest in natural resources, sustainability, and food systems planning to many projects. She is currently heading up the Franklin County Farm and Food System Project, which focuses on two primary topics: food system infrastructure and access to fresh, local food. In late 2013, she surveyed farmers to determine what they need in terms of infrastructure to produce and distribute food locally and what types of resources and services they need. One hundred and forty-five farmers responded and an identified need currently being explored is a poultry processing facility here in Franklin County. Though a long-time vegetarian, Praus views a well-run local processing facility, and local farms where chickens can have a decent life before being killed and eaten, far preferable to the inhumane conditions of factory farms. Many organizations are following up with additional farmer requests, such as business plans, development, farm transition and estate planning, and on-farm energy production
Other projects are being developed as off-shoots from the ongoing Farm and Food System Project. They include a market basket assessment aimed at addressing public perception that locally grown food is too expensive.
In addition, Praus is currently representing FRCOG as part of a team facilitating the creation of a statewide food system plan, giving Western Massachusetts a strong voice at its inception. She is also heading to Rhode Island this month to serve as a Massachusetts delegate to the 4th annual New England Food Summit which will focus on New England’s food system and food justice.
Praus is also active as a member of the Greenfield Tree Committee, a group of volunteers promoting the health of existing trees and the planting of many more. In late 2013, she conducted a tree inventory, funded as part of the FRCOG’S Sustainable Franklin County, a HUD Sustainable Communities project. The study area included trees in the tree belt on streets bounded by Silver and Main and Elm and High. You can learn about tree species, height, diameter, age, condition, and distribution in different economic areas in the window display at the Planning and Development office at 114 Main Street. This inventory is a vital first step to creating planting priorities and pursuing grant funding to plant more trees. The Greenfield DPW has welcomed Praus’ inventory and is using it to track tree maintenance and trees lost or planted.
Mary Praus feels very lucky to be living here and doing work that is meaningful and beneficial to the residents of Greenfield, the environment, and local farmers. She feels a quiet revolution is unfolding in town with more people planting food gardens, and the Town using more low impact development techniques. She has contributed to this quiet revolution and Greenfield is healthier and more beautiful because of her work. For all these reasons, Greening Greenfield honors Mary Praus as our Green Hero for June.