Women Who Make A Difference

Herald celebrates Women’s History Month
Laura Perkins with school children from Woodside Elementary School.
Laura Perkins with school children from Woodside Elementary School.
Joseph Squillante
Laura Perkins plants a love of the earth in children

Laura Perkins is passionate about inspiring the next generation of land stewards. She likes to provide opportunities for people to connect with the earth, and by extension, with each other.

A horticulturist for Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Tarrytown, Perkins works four 10-hour days so she can have one day off to inspire Peekskill elementary school students to care for the land.

“I want to create and leave a meaningful legacy for the next generation,” she said.

“To create opportunities for people to connect with the land; to create a community to care for creation. Peekskill has a lot going for it – the arts community, it’s a walkable city, has good landscape. It’s the perfect place to start.”

Cultivating land stewardship opportunities gives people a sense of belonging and a sense of connection with each other, she added.

Perkins, a self-taught horticulturist who tends to the gardens and landscaping at Stone Barns, and remediates problems like erosion and flooding, works one day a week with Peekskill schoolchildren on small gardening projects.

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  • Laura Perkins, right, enjoying a laugh with members of the Peekskill Rotary Club.

For the past three years, she has volunteered at the Woodside Elementary School greenhouse teaching kindergarteners and first-graders how to plant and care for seedlings, prepare a plot, decide where to plant in a garden, understand how it works, and to harvest the results. “They’re so smart and really learn quickly,” she said. She also does projects at Hillcrest Elementary School and the middle school.

“When you take the kindergartners and the first graders outside, they’re so full of wonder. I don’t know where that wonder gets lost. But our whole system is geared towards sitting at laptops, passing standardized tests, playing sports. The last thing on anyone’s mind is being connected to the earth as something that is relevant. We’re losing a part of ourselves; we’re missing out.”

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Perkins volunteers under the auspices of her company, Upstream Solutions, Peekskill, which she created in 2022. For now, Upstream Solutions is a labor of love, but she envisions her retirement someday where she can work full time in a profitable business.

She began her love affair with the outdoors while spending summers at her dad’s Catskills farm as a teen-ager and young adult in the ‘70s and ‘80s. “It was such a powerful experience,” she said. “There’s something about working with the land – the animals and the plants are all encompassing. The beauty, the food, the weather, so wonderful and so devastating.” The farm fell by the wayside eventually, but Perkins’ love of gardening grew. She learned as much as she could about gardening and eventually began a career in ornamental horticulture and landscape art. “It seemed like a career where you could actually make a living,” she said. After working at a Community Supported Agricultural farm in Beacon, she read about Stone Barns opening in 2004. “I said to myself, ‘Now that’s a place where I’d like to work.’ ” Perkins got hired, and has worked there for the past 20 years. “It’s a great job,” she said with a smile. “I’ve learned so much.”

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  • Perkins is joyful and expressive when telling Rotary members who are visiting the greenhouse about what working with the soil can do for children.

As her calling to become a land stewardship advocate got louder, Perkins began to think of how she could incorporate her passion to inspire others. “The first thing I thought of was an opportunity for school students to connect with the land,” she said. “The schools have good land around them and students could benefit from getting outside and having a hands-on experience with the concepts they’re learning in school. If they’re learning about biology, it’s good to go out and see biology outdoors. It makes their studies a little more compelling.”

She’s now working on the launch of the Peekskill Garlic Festival, a series of open houses at the schools in November to celebrate land in the community. “I chose garlic because it’s the one plant that the woodchucks don’t eat.” She’s preparing to launch her 2024 program at the schools in March by prepping garlic plants, aided by her husband, colleagues, and friends. She estimates that by July, the garlic will be ready.

Perkins can often be found at the Peekskill Farmers’ Market promoting her land stewardship programs, discussing sustainable gardening, educating shoppers, and cultivating new projects. She’s also talking to the homeless shelter about how residents might get involved in a gardening project again this year.

“As a society, we’re sorely lacking connection with the earth,” she said. “I believe that land stewardship is a way for people to connect with each other and gain stability. We experience isolation from each other and from the land.”

“They’re finding that there are a lot of chemicals in soil and plant leaves that make you feel better,” she said. “There’s a true psychological connection to being in touch with nature.”

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Perkins said she would like nothing more than having school programs that inspire graduates to look at land problems in a community, like flooding, with a solution in mind.

She feels that progress is being made. Students are taking a greater interest in the environment than ever before, she said. “I went to the high school on the last environmental day and kids are more interested in nurturing the earth than they’ve been before. Climate change is doing a good job. All of us are deeply concerned. When you’re working the land you see the changes that are happening in the stretch of a single lifetime. Whether you’re connected to the land or not, you still notice it.”

This isn’t the first community land project for Perkins, who has been volunteering in Peekskill since she moved here 14 years ago, including working on a community garden.

Why is it important for women to advocate for causes that are important to them?

“It’s really important now because it’s a scary time. It’s so important to develop resilience in the community. We need to take care of each other and build connections, so when disaster strikes, we’ll have those relationships.”

Does she see herself as a pioneer? “If I can pull off what I’m hoping to pull off then maybe I’m a pioneer,” she said. But she credits a lot of women in her field for sharing their knowledge and making a difference. “A lot of my knowledge is from talking to other women gardeners. There are incredible well-informed people who volunteer with the Garden Club.”

“Peekskill only needs more people with time to spare to make a difference. When I went to the four-day work week, it was amazing how much impact one person working one day a week could have.”

Perkins summarized her work: “There have been serious efforts to calculate the economic value of the earth’s ecosystem services, from top soil to grow food, to clean water to drink, to fresh air to breath, and it comes to trillions and trillions of dollars.  Stewarding these resources is necessary work. In addition, the work can help heal much of the pain and division within ourselves and between each other.”




Rotary Club Sponsors Make A Wish Fundraiser in April

The Peekskill Rotary Club is sponsoring this third installment of Peekskill Herald’s Women Who Make A Difference series.

Members of the Rotary Club are active participants with Laura Perkins in the work she does with schoolchildren.

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Photos for this story were taken when members of the Rotary visited Perkins at the greenhouse at Woodside Elementary School one recent afternoon.

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