-Community Farming on College Campuses-
Essay by Emily Horowitz
Farming is by no means instinctive work. Beyond the basic elements, (sunlight, rain and quality soil,) humans must summon their physical energy, devise strategy, and labor with love in their hearts to yield pastures of plenty. Sadly, many have lost touch with the agricultural processes that bring food to their table. Industrialized food cultivation, with production scaled to feed the masses, has generated an abundance of calories but left humans hungry for knowledge. Acutely aware of their ignorance, many people are apt to scapegoat farmers, either regarding them as the working poor, or as those catering to foodies and elitists. Today, farmers and scientists agree, society’s abdication of responsibility for food production has rendered entire communities vulnerable to famine in the not so distant future. Concern has spawned a “back-to-the-land” cultural movement that has the potential to uproot weeds, and replant local ecologies, using sustainable practices that touch the lives of people of all backgrounds and socioeconomic class. Opportunities to join the true “green” revolution abound, promising participants a fulfilling agricultural experience as well as an earned sense of self-reliance. To apply an often repeated slogan: “The cause is right, the time is now,” to get involved….
Universities and colleges are rallying to address the situation. In recent years, many schools have constructed beautiful gardens and developed exciting complimentary courses geared toward reversing the poor farmer stigma and laying the foundations for an agriculturally aware generation. During the fall 2016 semester at Ithaca College, for example, the organic gardens became an influential part of campus life. The gardens connected various disciplines on campus including the departments of Environmental Sciences and Studies, Anthropology, and Nutrition. Students had the unique opportunity to perform hands-on work in an agricultural setting. For many students, this was the first time they had ever worked soil or planted a crop. Through “grow outs”, students devised exciting experiments and conducted unique research projects. One group compared monoculture and polyculture growing methods. Others concentrated on exploring the community aspect of agriculture and enjoyed group harvests. The gardens have solidified their place as positive contributors to the campus environment both socially and academically.
“The curriculum helps students make connections with their food in a deeper way than [many] have experienced before,” Professor Anne Stork, who manages all four of Ithaca Colleges’ gardens tells monologging.org. “Students can develop all sorts of skills that are applicable to many different fields; in terms of learning how to manage a complex situation like a garden, take initiative, learning how to prioritize a space, (and) learning how to anticipate problems.” Stork says. Indeed, gardens offer boundless educational opportunities. Through hands-on learning projects based around the fundamental understanding of plant growth and cultivation, food systems become a more tangible concept to those students involved.
“It’s wonderful to develop (farming) skills in a protected environment like a school garden because the consequences aren’t that high but the learning potential is huge,” Stork notes. It’s safe to say that faculty gain from the experience as well. When produce was abundant, students brought the harvest to their classes, sharing purple pole beans and gorgeous yellow tomatoes with their peers. Daring students attempted to eat cayenne peppers and bizarre fruits like the ground cherry. Word spread quickly that the campus gardens were producing quality, delicious foods.
Beyond the personal relationships that students forged in the garden setting, there is an undeniable spiritual element to the work as individuals connect with the soil and living, breathing plants. A young woman commented on her experience in the gardens, claiming that when picking a tomato from the vine, she felt an instantaneous connection. When that piece of fruit fell into her hand, she could see agriculture in action. Students were reminded that nature is not perfect because it fits a mold for perceived beauty, but rather, it is perfect because nourishment is a gift. By connecting people to their food, and plants to the earth below, system thinking becomes second nature. The overwhelming disconnect from the origins of what humans eat derives from an egocentric approach to modern living.
Certainly the student gardens at Ithaca college have spawned excitement, but challenges to the gardening project persist. “Student interests wax and wane,” Stork acknowledges the unpredictable nature of student labor. “There always seem to be plenty of students interested in gardening, but there aren’t as many interested in leadership roles in the garden,” she says. Colleges experimenting with community gardens will need to devise curriculum that underscores the importance of sustained commitment to the plants cared for in the garden, or else the lessons in farming are consumed half-baked.
Today, the act of demonstrating how self-sufficiency is critically important to our future, not only benifet individuals, but reduce strain on the food system. Growing produce is not only doable, but also highly rewarding on a small-scale. The greatest contribution each of us can make is by taking as little as possible from the collective pool that we rely on. Mother earth gives willingly, and it is due time that humans see the gracious offer on the table, give thanks, and resist the urge to exploit generosity. Small-scale farming offers one opportunity to produce quality food and to form a connection with the soil below, all things that are conducive to maintaining a healthy environment while feeding the world.
Emily Horowitz is a senior at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. Emily majors in environmental science and minors in nutrition promotion at the College. She has long admired sustainable farming and gardening practices and during her college career took it upon herself to WWOOF, work at the Ithaca Farmers Market, and student manage Ithaca College’s organic production and teaching gardens. Emily enjoys cooking and can often be found experimenting with various food growing and processing techniques such as sprouting. You can explore her work with the Ithaca College Organic Gardens on https://ithacacollegecampusgardens.wordpress.com/.