Keene Sentinel: A ‘dynamo’ lands her dream job in conservation

By Joan Geary Contributing Writer
Published in Keene Sentinel, Saturday, August 31

Six years ago, fresh out of grad school, Amanda Littleton landed her dream job.

Since then, she’s worked as district manager of the Cheshire County Conservation District, the government agency that protects the county’s land and water resources, and promotes agriculture.

At 31, Littleton is already a veteran of the field. In 2006, as a student intern, she founded the Monadnock Localvores Project to encourage people to grow and buy local foods. Today, she chairs the group.

She serves on the leadership board of the Monadnock Sustainability Network, and is a longtime board member of the Hannah Grimes Center, which supports start-up businesses and local entrepreneurs. Besides a graduate degree in environmental education, she has a passion for conservation, local agriculture and preserving the region’s character. And she’s just getting started.

“I love my job,” she said. “I’m passionate about the opportunities available in the region. There’s always something new. It changes all the time. It’s dynamic.

“Bringing the right parties to the table to find resources, and to find solutions to complex problems — that’s what drives me,” she said. “We have so many great people in the area. It’s great to work with people that care about the land.”

Founded in 1945, the agency promotes conservation of Cheshire County’s natural resources by bringing together local people and groups to share ideas and assets. Littleton works directly with local farmers and forestland owners on conservation issues, and collaborates with numerous organizations on initiatives including community education programs.

“We have three main focus areas — soil health, water quality and farm viability,” she said. “Half of what we do is to connect farmers and forestland owners to financial and technical assistance programs through the farm bill. Our federal partner is the USDA National Resources Conservation Service. There are a lot of great voluntary programs; none are mandatory. We do a lot of the outreach and administration.

“The other half is programming based on local need,” she said. “Even though we’re a government agency, we’re run like a nonprofit. We have a board of supervisors who help define local need. I do a lot of grant writing.”

Grants underwrite a wide range of projects, including an equipment rental program for local farmers, and a program for area residents who benefit from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to buy more locally grown fresh foods at the Keene Farmers’ Market.

To protect local watershed quality, the group created rain gardens in several Keene locations. The bowl-shaped gardens are designed to capture rainfall and melting snow that often pollute the local water supply. The venture was funded, in part, by sales of the N.H. conservation license plate (the moose plate), and by a grant from the N.H. State Conservation Committee. Partners included the city of Keene and Antioch University New England.

“None of our projects would be possible without a strong level of collaboration with our partners in the area,” she said, among them Antioch, the Hannah Grimes Center, Monadnock Conservancy and the UNH Cooperative Extension. “To me, that’s core.”

Littleton, who grew up in Coventry, R.I., has loved the natural environment for as long as she can remember. She spent much of her time swimming at beaches, hiking in the woods or just playing outdoors.

After high school, she studied anthropology and psychology at the University of Rhode Island, spending a semester in Seville, Spain, and doing a month-long field study in Belize. Soon after her 2004 graduation, she met Jeff Littleton, a Keene environmentalist, at a bluegrass music festival in the Hudson Valley area of New York. They quickly hit it off. She moved briefly to Tucson, Ariz., for an internship at Saguaro National Park, but they continued a long-distance relationship.

Six months later, her internship ended. He convinced her to move to Keene. She worked as a field assistant in his consulting business, Moosewood Ecological LLC, doing plant and bird surveys. She often started her workday well before dawn, hiking through rugged terrain to a field site to do her job.

In November, after eight years together, the couple married. They live in Chesterfield, with his son, Eli, 11.

In September 2005, Littleton also started a graduate program in environmental education at Antioch University New England. While doing an internship at the Hannah Grimes Center, she founded the Monadnock Localvore Project to promote local farms and foods.

“We have two different focus areas,” she said. “First, we hold educational workshops around the region on topics like making your own root cellar, making wine and raising chickens. We also give scholarships to kids to go to farm camps. We gave 28 scholarships to Cheshire County kids from age 5 to 18 for camp at Stonewall Farm, Kroka Expeditions, Orchard Hill, and to some 4-H camps in Massachusetts.”

At Antioch, she also worked on two major community projects. First was Friends of Center City Keene, an initiative to promote a vibrant downtown area. She helped to survey local residents about their wants and needs for downtown Keene.

Additionally, she worked with CTAP (Community Technical Assistance Program), a land use program that offered support and technical assistance for the 26 towns and cities affected by the proposed Interstate 93 corridor expansion.

“I helped on the agricultural piece,” she said. “It was awesome to work with community stakeholders. My focus was on agricultural and forest lands. It was really informative for me.”

Immediately after her 2007 graduation, she was hired for her current position with the conservation district.

Littleton manages the Walpole office, and reports to Assistant County Administrator Rod Bouchard.

“Amanda is an absolute dynamo, both in the quality and quantity of her work,” he said. “She’s every manager’s dream employee. She’s always on point. She’s always out there doing an outstanding job, both in what she does and how she does it. I never have to worry about her. I just can’t say enough good things about her.”

Recently, she’s collaborated with social service agencies and schools on a new program, Monadnock Menus, funded by a USDA grant. It offers food service directors greater access to local, farm-fresh foods.

“With this program, any wholesale buyer, including schools and correction facilities, can purchase farm-fresh food like veggies, fruit, dairy products, bread and other products online,” she said. “It’s delivered directly to their door. For example, they can order from 10 different farms or more. It comes on one truck with one invoice. It takes the barrier out of buying local.

“We’re trying to do more programs like this to expand markets for farmers,” she said. “Kids eat healthier. It’s good for the economy. It’s good for nutrition. It’s good for land stewardship. Farms remain in business because they’re selling more.”

Besides her job, Littleton is committed to the local community. She’s been a member of the board of directors of the Hannah Grimes Center for many years, and currently serves as secretary. Mary Ann Kristiansen directs the organization.

“Amanda is amazing,” Kristiansen said. “She just has a quiet drive and gets things done under the radar screen. She’s a mover and a shaker. She’s making a difference in the community, and will continue to do so. She’s just extraordinary. She’s a huge collaborator. She pulls everyone in on whatever she’s doing. She does it well.”

Littleton spends most of her free time with her husband and stepson. The couple, who live in an older home, work on it frequently. The family loves camping and travel. She and her husband share many common interests, including a love of outdoor sports and adventure. They both recently earned certification in scuba diving, and are learning to sail on the ocean.

“Amanda’s my wife, but she’s also one of the most lovely people I’ve ever met,” said Jeff Littleton. “She’s one of those people who walks into a room and just lights it up. She’s really quite fantastic. She’s got a warm, unassuming demeanor, and she’s just fun to be around.”

Life goes by quickly, Amanda Littleton says, so she’ll always make time for her family and personal interests. Along with that, she’ll continue to work with the conservation district, delving more deeply into conservation issues.

“I feel like I’m just beginning this journey,” she said. “There’s a lot more to be done. I plan to stick with it, to learn more and to continue to do it better.”